Putin under growing pressure to ground Superjet-100 fleet

Despite online petition in wake of 41 deaths, Russia’s transport ministry stands firm

Russian-made Superjet-100 at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow following its crash and fire. Photograph: AFP Photo/City News Agency Moscow

Russian-made Superjet-100 at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow following its crash and fire. Photograph: AFP Photo/City News Agency Moscow

 

Russia is facing pressure to ground its Superjet-100 fleet after one of the passenger planes exploded in flames during an emergency landing at a Moscow airport on Sunday evening.

Forty-one of the 78 people on board the Aeroflot-operated aircraft were killed in the disaster that marked the first fatal accident for Russia’s flagship airline in more than a decade.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said on Tuesday that a full week was needed to determine what forced the plane to make an emergency landing and burst into flames. Bad weather, technical malfunction or mistakes by pilots or traffic controllers were being considered as possible causes.

Videos on social media showing the stricken Superjet careering along the runway at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport engulfed in flames embodied the worst nightmares of air travellers.

More than 134,440 people have signed an online petition demanding that Russian authorities halt all Superjet flights in the wake of the tragedy. Russia’s transport ministry is standing firm, saying there’s no reason to ground the planes ahead of the investigation results.

Industrial symbol

Russia began investing in the development of the Superjet-100 shortly after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, flagging the project as a symbol of the revival of the country’s once-proud civil aviation industry. However, the aircraft built by Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aviation company in a partnership with US firm Boeing struggled to find buyers outside Russia.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, who served as an independent director of Aeroflot in 2012, accused the government this week of concealing the technical problems that plagued the prestigious Superjet project and strong-arming Aeroflot into buying the aircraft.

Demanding a halt to Superjet flights until investigators found an explanation for Sunday’s accident, Mr Navalny challenged Mr Putin to vouch for the aircraft’s safety.

Political capital

“If the authorities refuse to ground the Superjet, Putin should announce that ‘Superjet is my baby, the achievement of my rule, I believe in it and therefore I and [Russian prime minister Dmitry] Medvedev will only fly by Superjet from this day on,” he wrote on the Echo Moskvy radio website.

Other Kremlin critics warned that the Russian government had invested too much money and political capital in the Superjet-100 to back away from the project. “State owned Sukhoi made the plane on government orders. State Aeroflot bought the plane on government orders,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a Russian opposition politician. “A crow doesn’t peck out the eye of another crow.”

Yamal Airlines, a Siberia-based passenger airline, ditched plans this week to purchase 10 Superjet 100s, saying the costs of servicing the aircraft were too high. Dublin-based City Jet, the only European airline to have invested in the Superjet, suspended use of the Russian-made aircraft early this year after encountering a string of technical problems.