Airline passengers tend to take for granted that purchasing a ticket will result in travel aboard a dependable aircraft run by an airline that places safety at a premium. The biggest concerns most passengers have are comfort and punctuality. For passengers of Russia’s flagship airline, Aeroflot, comfort and punctuality are fortuitous perks. Its accident-laden history still weighs on passengers, even more than the luggage they carry when they board Aeroflot’s planes.
Started in 1923, Aeroflot is one of the oldest airlines in the world. As the Soviet Union’s national airline, it was also the largest in the world for a time. Following the dissolution of the USSR, Aeroflot was privatized, but the Russian government still owns 51% of the company. Today it brings in annual revenue of approximately $8 billion, employs more than 30,000 people, and controls about 40% of Russia’s air market. The Aeroflot of today proudly points to its redesigned livery, modern aircraft, and improved customer service. While its standards have unquestionably improved in recent years, the memory of different days is still fresh on the minds of many people. The airline’s disastrous record in those days is the reason many people still refer to the carrier as Aeroflop.
Take 1973, for example. In that year alone, half of all the world’s aviation-related deaths happened in Aeroflot airplanes. 780 people died in the company’s 27 accidents that year. The next year, 1974, things improved, but that’s not saying much. The airline suffered 21 accidents. The accident rate continued downward with 19 in 1975. In 1976, however, the numbers shot up again, with 33 accidents. All told, between 1946 and 1989, Aeroflot was involved in 721 accidents — an average of one every three weeks. Only the US, a country that operates around 13 times more flights than Russia each year, has had more crashes — 821.
If the number of accidents causes you worry, you’ll be terrified when you learn the causes. Some of them were attributed to overloaded planes, made too heavy to fly, due to aircrews accepting bribes from standby passengers to squeeze extra people onto the flight. Others were linked to pilots and crew operating under the influence of alcohol.
A 1994 accident resulting in the death of 75 people happened when the pilot let his young son sit at the flight controls. The boy turned off the auto pilot, putting the plane into a nosedive into the ground.
Other reasons for the dismal safety record have to do with the quality of the aircraft of the fleet. In 2013, AirlineRatings.com released a list of the 10 least-safe aircraft models. Topping the chart was the Czech LET410, introduced in 1970, but five Russian aircraft were also present, including a staple of Aeroflot’s Cold War fleet – the Tupolev Tu-154. This aircraft alone was implicated in more than 50 major incidents — eight involving Aeroflot — and 39 of which resulted in the loss of lives.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union into many smaller nations, Aeroflot followed suit. The massive airline splintered, spawning more than 800 airlines. These smaller companies, sometimes referred to as Babyflots, generated their own string of safety violations. The safety record of these Babyflots, in fact, was so abysmal that in 1994 the International Air Transport Association recommended train travel as the least life-threatening form of travel in the former Soviet Union. This, in spite of the fact that ordinarily, travel by train is 22 times more likely to result in death than travel by plane.
Intrigued by what you’ve seen? Don’t stop:
- Read more fun facts about aviation.
- Read more fun facts about Russia.