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23 February 2024

Jet blast, airport closures haunt Russian travellers


Russia's much-maligned aviation industry faced new headwinds on Monday after a deadly jet explosion grounded some of its aircraft and the country's busiest airport experienced another shutdown threat.

Emergency workers scrambled to ensure that Russia's main airport avoided a second power outage in just over a week as they hooked Domodedovo airport to a backup generator that worked despite broader disruptions in the Moscow region.

The airport's lights went out briefly on Sunday evening but a Domodedovo spokeswoman told Interfax that "the airport has and is continuing to operate according to schedule."

She said the dramatic two-day closure that the airport experienced late December was unlikely to happen again but that a special unit from Russia's emergencies ministry was dispatched to Domodedovo just in case.

The true scale of Russia's recent transportation problems were underscored over the weekend when a 27-year old Tupolev jet caught fire on a Siberian runway and exploded moments before it was due to take off for Moscow.

Dramatic footage of the Surgut disaster -- which killed three and injured more than 30 others -- was replayed on Russian television throughout the New Year weekend and prompted a series of emergency meetings in the Kremlin.

President Dmitry Medvedev was forced Sunday to receive one set of officials who were dealing with the Moscow airport disruptions and then another who were probing the Tu-154 runway blast.

Those meetings concluded with a threat of new sanctions facing Russian airlines and a decision to temporarily ground the oldest of the Tupolev jets.

The order affects only 14 of the hundreds of Tu-154 planes that fly post-Soviet skies and the country's transport authorities took pains Monday to assure passengers that the decision would not jeopardise travel.

"The introduction of temporary restriction on the use of the Tu-154B-2 aircraft will not affect the commercial activity of the Russian airlines that use them," a Federal Transport Oversight Agency spokesman told RIA Novosti.

"Their temporary removal from operations will not impact airline performance as a whole," the spokesman told Russia's official news agency. "They have things with which to replace them."

The older B model of the Tu-154 jets was manufactured between 1975 and 1986 and sold throughout South America and Africa as the Soviet Union competed with the United States' Boeing for international airline dominance.

It was not clear how many of the older Tupolevs are still used by Moscow's Communist-era trade partners or the former Soviet states.

Russia's Ministry of Industry and Trade reports that the last Tu-154 jet was manufactured in 2007 as the country moves to more modern models that pass Europe's strict noise restriction laws.

The Tu-154 explosion capped a nightmarish week for Russia's aviation authorities that included unprecedented disruptions at Moscow's two main airports.

The hundreds of delays at Domodedovo -- which handles a daily average of more than 55,000 passengers -- were caused by power disruptions that affected the outskirts of Moscow following a spell of unseasonable winter rain.

But the resulting ice not also damaged power lines but also brought Moscow's second airport Sheremetyevo to a virtual halt.

The extent of the problem drew a furious response from Russia's de facto leader Vladimir Putin and resulted with the threat of sanctions hanging over such major Russian airlines as Aeroflot and Transaero.

"The airline and airport officials have provided every possible explanation except one -- why did they treat people the way they did," Russia's president-turned-premier said in televised remarks.