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Soviet Airline Crumbles Along with the Country

December 19, 1991

MOSCOW (AP) _ The gray Soviet skies, home to the state airline Aeroflot, are none too friendly these days as the country below them disintegrates.

With the fall of the central government, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and other republic leaders are abolishing more than 80 monopolistic Soviet ministries.

One, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, ran Aeroflot, until recently the only Soviet airline.

The 12 Soviet republics and the three newly independent Baltic states each has claimed Aeroflot assets on its soil. Many autonomous regions have their own airlines, for a total of 34 slices of the Aeroflot pie.

″We’ve got lots of problems,″ said Alexander A. Larin, who as boss of the air division of the Russian Federation Ministry of Transportation is in charge of 6,500 planes.

Soviet television reported Tuesday there was only enough aviation fuel in Moscow to last another 10 days and that the situation in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and North Caucasus was critical. It said tens of thousands of would-be passengers had been waiting for days in departure lounges.

Today, Radio Russia reported there has been no improvement and 87 airports have no reliable supplies. It quoted a Civil Aviation Ministry official as saying military pilots were helping out, and that was helping to get commercial flights into the air from time to time.

All the ″airlines″ are still government-owned, and nearly all planes still bear Aeroflot’s blue-and-white label. Larin said he did not know how soon they might be sold to private owners, or when they would offer competing flights.

For now, regional airlines are linked in a complex web of timetables, fuel and supply lines that collapsed with the rest of the central government.

The results are grounded aircraft and long delays. In some airports, passengers have rebelled, blocking runways.

Nearly every traveler has an Aeroflot story. Stewardesses puff on cigarettes after flicking on the ‘No Smoking’ for passengers. Trays of hot food are carried to the flight crew while passengers are lucky to get a plastic bag containing bread, jam and a cookie on flights lasting up to nine hours.

″On one flight between two Central Asian cities, I poked my head through the curtains to the galley. The crew was frying up a chicken on an open-flame stove,″ said one Western diplomat.

Despite the horror tales, Larin predicts quick modernization. Some Westerners here agree.

″On my first flight from Baku to Moscow, a shepherd got on board with two sheep,″ recalled Fred Zomer, an American engineer working in oil-rich Azerbaijan.

″The stewardess told him, ‘No sheep in the cabin.’ And he showed her two tickets, one for him and one for the sheep. She still said no, so he took out a great long knife and slit the throat of one of the sheep, and it bled to death, right there in the aisle. She just let him sit where he was.

″That was two years ago. They seem to be learning. I never see anything like that any more.″

But problems remain. Shortages of spare parts grounded 40 percent of the fleet, Larin said, and lack of fuel is causing delays of several days on many flights.

Maintenance problems helped make this year the deadliest in Aeroflot history. Tass today quoted government statistics saying that as of Dec. 16, Aeroflot has had 167 accidents, including 36 crashes. He said 252 people were killed and 185 injured.

The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported last week that 70 percent of Aeroflot’s jets and helicopters are old and unsafe.

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