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July 15, 2009

Iran Air Crash: The Russian Factor

A Tupolov TU-154M.
Photo: pastobert on using Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

If you are shopping for the best airliners in the world, there are four places to go: the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Canada. If you are operating an airline in Iran, too bad. The combination of international sanctions against Iran and the xenophobia of Iran's ruling thugs rules out dealing with Western suppliers.

Today's crash in Iran of a Russian-built Tupolev 154, killing 168 people, points to the risks involved in flying in Iran. The 154 was once a sturdy workhorse for the internal routes of Soviet Russia, similar to the Boeing 727, and the first Russian airliner to have avionics up to Western standards. Other countries in the Soviet bloc used it, and as long as it was well maintained it was--by the standards of 1960s technology--dependable.

By today's standards, though, the 154 is a relic. Its weakest point was always its engines. Adapted from engines designed for military use, they were powerful but guzzled gas and left a smoky trail. Keeping those engines serviced, and finding the spare parts for them, would require the search and bargaining skills of the bazaar, which is probably how it worked in Iran for the airline involved in today's crash, Caspian Airlines. Engine failure is a prime suspect in this case.

The sad truth is that Russia once had some of the finest airplane designers in the world. Even today, their best aeronautical minds are hired by other nations' plane makers, including Boeing. And there is a nascent Russian airliner industry, cross-fertilizing their skills with those of Europe and the United States. Like the Chinese, they want to get into the big world markets.

But for now, "Russian-built" is a warning that all flyers should heed--and another reason to check out not just an airline that you could encounter but the provenance of the airplanes they fly.

Further reading:
* On the Fly: Condé Nast Traveler on the airline industry


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