Monday, June 9, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Domestic Air Transportation System Continues to Contract

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 9 – Russia’s domestic air transportation system – hitherto the only reliable year-round link for many places in that enormous country which lack railways or all-season roads – continues to decline, despite past promises by Vladimir Putin and more recent ones by President Dmitry Medvedev that Moscow will subsidize some routes and build new airports.
In an article posted online today, journalist Natalya Malinina reports that the number of airports in the Russian Federation fell from 1302 in 1991 to 451 in 2002 to 351 in 2007, with 45 more closing I the last year alone and more likely to be forced to close in the coming months because of infrastructure problems (
This decline in the number of domestic airports has been paralleled by an equally precipitous fall in the number of domestic carriers, from a high of 393 in 1994 to 299 in 2000 to 41 today, a fall-off that reflects the failure of many of the spinoffs from the state airline, sometimes known as “baby Aeroflots,” to make a profit.
And in addition, the number of Russian airports handling international flights has fallen sharply as well. In the 1990s, many of the country’s regional airports handled flights to neighboring countries both within the former Soviet space and more broadly, but the number doing so now has fallen to 69 and the government plans to reduce that figure to eight.
In addition to the obvious centralizing and isolating consequences of this trend, one far more extreme than was the case in the last years of Soviet power, this post-1991 collapse in domestic air transportation makes it far more difficult for the regions to attract investment from other regions or abroad or thus to retain workers and their families.
But a major reason for this collapse lies precisely in a Soviet-era arrangement that the Russian government has not changed. Unlike some forms of transportation infrastructure, airports remain federal property, and consequently, even those regional leaders who would like to spend money to build up these hubs are not able to without Moscow’s permission.
At various points during his presidency, Vladimir Putin promised to do something about domestic air transport. He even made it the subject of a section of his 2004 message to the Duma, but despite his words and those of his subordinates, Moscow did little or nothing even to slow the decline in this sector.
With the coming to office of Dmitry Medvedev, some aviation and regional officials have expressed the hope that things may change. On the one hand, they point to Transportation Minister Igor Levitin’s promise in Sochi on May 24th that Moscow will begin to subsidize some regional air routes in order to prevent a further contraction.
And on the other, these same officials cite the Kremlin press service report on June 3rd that Medvedev is concerned about the terrible state of the country’s airports, where conditions are now so bad that often “airplanes do not fly” even within a single federation subject let alone among them.
But in reporting these hopes, Malinina suggests that Russians should be asking themselves whether those who destroyed the country’s air network can be trusted to rebuild it, whether the subsidies will actually support flying or be corruptly siphoned off, and whether the big plans Moscow has announced for a few places are either possible or safe?

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