ECONOMY

No-holds-barred competition led to Ukraine airlines’ dismal record

KIEV – A lack of safety regulations and financing, as well as savage competition between a multitude of companies, are largely to blame for the grim safety record of Ukraine’s air charter industry, experts said yesterday. The latest crash involving a Ukrainian-owned plane in Turkey, killing all 62 passengers and 13 crew yesterday, adds to a growing list of malfunctions and tragedies that cast a shadow over its air sector, once the pride of the Soviet Union. And with a lack of political will to regulate the haphazard growth of the sector, more accidents are likely, they said. «This kind of situation, with all the accidents and tragedies, has come about mainly because the system of regulation is completely ineffective,» said the director of a private air charter company, who declined to be named. «The regulatory body, Ukraviatrans, just thinks about its own pockets. This is the same situation in every industry and in the whole country, but it is just that aviation is a bit more dangerous when things go wrong. People die.» The company involved in the latest crash, Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines, said it had maintained the 15-year-old YAK-42 plane well and had fully modernized it in 2001. «We are investigating what happened. The plane was in good technical condition and the crew were well prepared,» said Volodymyr Gorbanovsky, the airline’s deputy general director. Officials at Ukraviatrans declined comment and officials at the Ministry for Transport were not immediately available. Representatives of other airlines, including Aerosvit Ukrainian Airlines, Ukraine’s largest, declined comment on the safety situation. Using aging aircraft, cheaper crews and paying little heed to safety rules, some small Ukrainian airline companies operate only a few planes to either popular holiday resorts abroad or more out-of-the-way business runs where competition is less. Others offer cargo services to cash-starved developing countries unable to pay Western prices. Working for years in Kiev running his company, the charter director said regulators could not keep up with the plethora of companies offering flights and were not equipped to carry out the necessary inspections to uphold safety standards. «In the majority of countries in the world, they have an independent regulatory organ monitoring the sector. Our body has no independence. So if we do not have an independent supervisory body, how can we have thorough inspections?» he asked. Aging aircraft, cheap crews But with competition fierce, experts said that lower prices could make companies cut corners. «Of course, Ukrainian or Russian companies are offering their services cheaper, but that is only one of the factors,» a Russian industry expert said. He said that the United Nations, which chartered the plane operating yesterday’s flight, would have also looked at the company’s safety record and reputation. The Russian expert said sometimes companies would buy or lease very old planes and then privately hire the crews and pay them in cash unofficially. «Then there is no order, and aviation is a sector where order is vital,» he added. He said that was the most likely explanation for this month’s accident in Congo, where a Ukrainian-owned Il-76 cargo plane’s doors sprung open in mid-air, sending what is believed to be at least 14 passengers to their deaths. Authorities in Kiev denied anyone died. In December, an Antonov An-140 crashed in Iran, killing all 46 Ukrainian aviation engineers and experts on board. And 83 people were killed last July in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in the world’s worst air show disaster. «The airlines – it is a very big mess,» a Western diplomat said when asked to sum up the aviation industry. «They are fighting one another; there are a lot of political interests. It’s just a mess.» Ukraine is home to the Antonov aircraft maker, but very few planes are now made in the country. Its scheduled airlines, including the half-state-owned, half-private Ukraine International Airlines, use Boeing aircraft as well as locally made planes. They have had no recent crashes.