In Russia, Airplane Crash Renews Focus on Airline Safety

BY Larisa Epatko  September 9, 2011 at 1:27 PM EST


Image via Independent Television News.

The crash Wednesday of an airplane carrying a professional ice hockey team not only devastated the small town they represented, but reverberated well beyond sports fans into a population already shaken by a spate of recent airline accidents.

Forty-five people died Wednesday, including 38 players, coaches and staff of the Russian professional ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl as they were traveling to a game in Minsk.

“In Yaroslavl, where the hockey team is from, people were in complete shock and crying,” said Shaun Walker, Moscow correspondent for The Independent. He reported from Yaroslavl as thousands of fans gathered at the hockey team’s stadium for a vigil. “It’s a small town. The hockey team was very successful and was seen as the pride of the town.”

A pre-planned international forum was taking place at the stadium, where President Dmitry Medvedev was set to speak. He opened the forum with a moment of silence for the victims.

Plane crashes have become such a frequent occurrence in Russia that “if it had been an ordinary scheduled flight probably there would have been a standard day of mourning and words of condolences would have been said, but it wouldn’t have registered as more than another sad story,” said Walker.

But the added element of the loss of the hockey team in a country where hockey, along with soccer, is the most popular sport has had an impact, he said. “I think people’s reaction seems to be a bit stronger than usual that Russia can’t keep allowing this sort of thing to happen. Too many people are dying in crashes that seem to be caused by poor maintenance or older aircraft.”

The cause of the crash, which happened shortly after takeoff, was not immediately known. The Yak-42 jet was manufactured in 1993. Even before this latest crash, Medvedev had called for older Soviet-built aircraft to be taken out of service beginning next year.

On Thursday, after visiting the crash scene, Medvedev also called for a reduction in the number of air companies operating in Russia, though he did not give specifics.

Aeroflot is the main airline company in Russia, and there are other smaller airlines that use Western planes, said Walker. But there are dozens of other smaller airlines, some of which operate with only one or two airplanes, and sometimes are the only option to get from place to place.

As the country mourns its latest loss, the hockey season — which was supposed to begin on Wednesday — was postponed until Monday, he said. And as for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, there’s been talk of other teams in the Kontinental Hockey League each donating a player, and other former players have volunteered to come out of retirement, to help rebuild the team.

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