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Grounded Flights: Medvedev Promises Big Changes for Airlines Following Yet Another Deadly Crash

A horrific plane crash in Yaroslavl has left 43 dead and two in critical condition, wiping out the majority of Yaroslavl's successful Lokomotiv hockey team and throwing an entire city into mourning. The crash marks the ninth in a summer that has made Russia one of the deadliest countries in the world for air travel, in particular in the country's regions, where small carriers skirt by with an aging fleet and poor inspection records. President Dmitry Medvedev today announced that Russian aviation should expect big changes in the coming months, and that many will likely go out of business.

The scene in Yaroslavl, where Lokomotiv is based, in local reports has shown a community devastated by the news of the death of the hockey team. Local media reported that upon the announcement of the crash, thousands of fans visited a makeshift memorial at the team's home arena, "Arena-2000," leaving flowers and candles and chanting Lokomotiv cheers like "Loko-Loko, the Yaroslavl armored train!" The KHL, a hockey league uniting Russia with several of the former member states from the Soviet Union, announced that the team would be symbolically reconstructed by diverting two to three players from the other remaining teams in the league.

President Medvedev, who planned to travel to Yaroslavl today, amended his schedule to fly into Yaroslavl yesterday after news of the crash was reported on local Russian media. On Thursday at a government meeting in Yaroslavl, he announced that Russia no longer has a place for many of its small air carriers: "The number of air companies should be radically reduced, and this needs to be done in the shortest period," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying. The companies that remain would be those that "had the will and the means to service their fleet, attract qualified personnel and pay them a respectable wage."

Yelena Sakhnova, a transportation analyst from state-run VTB bank, said that "this may encourage the smaller charter airlines to renew their fleets. The problem in Russia is that there are five or so companies which execute regular flights that are safer, but there are 100 smaller companies and as you'd imagine, that they save on everything, on technology, on pilots, on maintenance, on the planes."

The crash has been one of many this summer that have led to increasing skepticism on Russia's aging air fleet. In June, a Tupolev 134 jet crashed on approach into Petrozavodsk in Russia's northwest Karelia Region, killing 44. According to reports, the aircraft was touching down in heavy fog and pilots ignored warnings from air-traffic controllers and continued their approach, in the course of which they clipped a set of power lines and blacked out the runway lights. That crash resembled others, including the death of Polish President Lech Kaczysnki in 2010, who was killed when his plane similarly attempted a landing in heavy smog near Smolensk and lost control, killing all 95 on board.

Expectations of a possible grounding of the Yak jets would follow in recent steps by the government to ban aircraft after similar accidents, including the An-24 after a crash in Siberia. Yet grounding the plane may carry serious repercussions for local airline companies ­ as Sakhnova noted, with the Yak-42 out of commission and An-24 already banned, "there would practically be no small aircraft left." Despite the dangers to many of the smaller airlines, Sakhnova said that a short-term ban may be expected, and that may help force the market into better valuing safety. "If they're forced to replenish their fleets, then a lot of them probably will go bankrupt. But that's probably for the best, because in any other case, this is going to happen again," said Sakhnova.

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