Sergey Skuratov: "The successful outcome of the flight is the top priority for Ural Airlines"
22.11.2011 — Analysis
The year of 2011 has become pivotal for Ural Airlines in every respect. One of the largest Russian air carriers is hitting all-time highs. The airline is topping its own records in the number of passengers, which exceeded 2 million people. The revenue, for the first time, overshot the level of 15 billion rubles. The aircraft fleet has added eight airbuses over one year, and the earnings have almost tripled as compared to the previous year. However, in his exclusive interview to RusBusinessNews, the general director of the airline Sergey Skuratov highlighted problems, rather than achievements, which are inherent in the Russian aviation, while endangering safety of passengers and driving airline companies to bankruptcy.
- Sergey Nikolayevich, the summer and autumn of 2011 were marked by tragic events in operations of the Russian aviation. The Interstate Aviation Committee has repeatedly pointed out such factors in the accident cause list as: obsolete equipment, airport conditions, inadequate qualification of pilots... While "the trail is still hot", it was decided to "ground" Soviet airplanes. Do you think that it was the right point to start solving the problem?
- I do not think that it is going to enhance significantly safety of air transportation in Russia. On the other hand, this decision may be right, as some of the operated aircraft have been flying too long. Professionals are aware of the shortage of spare parts for safe operation of such airplanes.
Spare parts for a large aircraft, say for Tu-154, used to be manufactured by a few score of factories. However, some of them stroke them off their nomenclature, as there were not many airplanes and the factory could hardly make any profit. Manufacturers are ready to accept a large order, but the turnaround time is three months. There can be no commercial operation of an aircraft in this situation: The aircraft will yield thumping losses, staying idle on the ground.
It applies to An-24, Yak-40, Yak-42 and Ty-134 airplanes that due to objective reasons have been left without spare parts. The logical question is: How can they fly without spare parts that are required for their repair? Thus, the decision of the Ministry of Transport to "ground" them is, probably, justified.
- However, judging by news reports, incidents and failures occur not only with Soviet, but also with foreign airliners...
- We can skip incidents. They are natural, and I do not see anything agonizing about this. Any present-day aircraft has triple redundancy for all critical systems. The malfunction of one of the three engines of the Tu-154 aircraft, according to its operating manual, is not deemed as a special occurrence in the flight - it can fly, using the other two engines, even without any drift-down.
Incidents may occur with "tupolevs", "boeings" and "airbuses", but, certainly, incidents with foreign airplanes are not as frequent. We teach pilots how to act adequately in such situations - these are comprehensive programs, and our pilots are professionally trained how to act in the event of any malfunction.
The key point here is that operation of any foreign aircraft implies consistency. The operating manual specifies clearly all the types of incidents and defines clearly all the actions of the crew. There is no room for creativity, there are no Chkalovs and no one is going to fly "under the bridge". You must follow the instructions without thinking, just acting by instinct, because everything has been well-thought by the smartest engineers.
Let's take, for example, the A320 aircraft - their number has reached 6,000 all over the world. It is a well-known, proven and reliable aircraft. If the instrument panel displays "landing is required", the pilot must accept it and land the aircraft. There may be no failures in the flights and no emergency, but the computer recommends intermediate landing. It is good when the human factor is minimized in making decisions. Life of passengers is much more important than judgments of a pilot. Therefore, the pilot is required to do what the computer system prescribes, and, later, on the ground, a professional will find out what has happened. This approach assures safety of aircraft operation.
- You have pointed out that the present-day aircraft equipment is designed to minimize the human factor, but the Yak-42 airplane crashed because of the mistake made by the crew...
- After any accident, they always say that it was the fault of the pilots. The human factor is likely to be the first to blame in all airborne accidents all over the world.
However, in Russia the operation of ground services is very important in terms of safety. And this operation is appalling. Most of the accidents in our country occur at aerodromes where the landing approach is guided by visual-aural range (VAR) systems (ground-based landing systems with radio beacons - RBN's note). This system has existed since after-war years; I used it a lot when I piloted the An-2 in the early 70s. Forty years has passed and what has changed? Today, the same system is used for the final approach even in case of the airplanes of top-tier government officials - for example, the Tu-154 of Polish President Kaczynski in Smolensk.
Several years ago I put a ban on flights of Ural Airlines aircraft, even of AN-24s, to the airports equipped only with VAR systems, as this is the type of "thin ice" landing. In earlier days, pilots knew how to fly using VAR landing facilities, because half of the country had them. Today's pilots do not know how to do this and there is no need in teaching them. The airports with VAR systems should be avoided by first-class aircraft.
The Russian Ministry of Transport has allocated money for re-equipment of such airports in the amount, if I am not mistaken, of 1.5 billion rubles. The VAR system is replaced by the automatic landing system (ILS) (the instrument landing system designed to provide precise guidance, in contrast to the VAR system, for the final approach in landing - RBN's note). Thank God, the government realized the problem and allocated money. VAR systems should be eliminated as soon as possible. They have killed so many people that there'll be hell to pay. In addition, there have been so many incidents that are not publicly known. This bottleneck in the safety system has never been a secret, but for some reason no money has been invested to rectify the situation.
Another bottleneck is that some of the Russian airports operate only during daytime hours. It just boggles the mind. Civil aircraft accepted the round-the-clock schedule long time ago, while, for example, Norilsk operated only during day-time hours. I think that the Norilsk Nickel Mining and Metallurgical Company is able to solve this "super-task" and ensure that Norilsk residents have round-the-clock flights.
In my opinion, those who are incompetent and indifferent as to the importance of this issue should be temporarily excluded from the list of the airports allowed to receive international flights. Such policy will immediately put their consciousness in order.
- Turning back to pilots. The Interstate Aviation Committee points out that a number of Russian airlines have problems related to medical control over fight personnel. What is the control level accepted by Ural Airlines?
- The strictest control. Years back we spent substantial funds and organized our own medical expert committee. Two floors of the Ekaterinburg head office of Ural Airlines accommodate needs of aviation medicine. The doctors who have special training supervise over each pilot and flight attendant in the most thorough way. Medical examinations are scheduled quarterly and annually.
Our employees consult the doctors about any problem. It does not mean that they will immediately be decommissioned - they will be given assistance. Life is life; an arm can be broken or an appendix must be removed. If employees need surgery - they will be admitted by the best surgeon through the insurance system. We know best doctors in each field of specialization, and we will deliver our pilot or any other specialist only into the hands of best experts.
Our medical personnel are interested in keeping the pilot in his best health; therefore, the air staff should continuously be checked addressing all parameters. For example, the medical preflight inspection at Koltsovo Airport is in our responsibility. Three doctors examine most thoroughly the condition of each crew member at the beginning of the working day.
In the near future, we are introducing total drug control. It will be mandatory for everyone who deals with aircraft - pilots, flight attendants, technicians.
- Your forecast: What can it reveal?
- I do not think that there are going to be any surprises for us. When a person is going to be employed by Ural Airlines, our experienced doctors will immediately detect any drug addiction - nothing can be concealed from them.
- During the working day there can be more than one flight. However, a pilot can feel bad; God forbid, I do not mean that he had a drink. What is he going to do in this situation?
- He has the right to say "I need rest". For example, our aircraft is flying from Ekaterinburg through Novosibirsk to Khabarovsk. In Novosibirsk the pilot in command says: I have made a decision - we will take rest. That is all; no questions will be asked but one - how many hours do you need? The provisional answer is eight hours. The crew will be accommodated in the activity therapy center. There is nothing to worry about - we will deliver a stand-by airplane to Novosibirsk, which will carry the passengers further. Yes, we will incur financial losses, but it is not the issue of priority to us. The most important thing is safety, and we trust the pilot in command.
What I am telling you is not a fantasy, it is our real life. Let's say that the crew makes two flights a day. During the first flight there was a delay - because of the weather conditions or technical faults. Instead of flying, the pilot in command had to stay at the aircraft for several hours. Finally, he arrives at the destination, and his working day is over. The crew must have some rest, and the next flight is postponed for them for the time they need for rest. The situation is absolutely normal, just in the same way as the situation when the crew has to go around to make the second landing approach.
- What about the statement of aviation authorities that pilots should no longer be punished for the go-around? Does it mean that now the go-around is not allowed?
- Only incompetent executives can punish for the go-around. In our company, the crew will not hesitate to make the go-around, if the situation requires it, and there will be no questions or reproaches. The successful outcome of the flight is the top priority.
- Does it mean that IOSA certificates obtained by Ural Airlines prove this very point that safety of flights is the top priority?
- We have a lot of flights to Europe, which protects its sky. The European standard of quality of flights is the IOSA certificate, operational safety audit programs for airlines, which are approved by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Three years ago only four Russian companies, including Ural Airlines, had this certificate. According to the recently adopted decision, all large airlines in our country must have such certificates.
It is not just a framed piece of paper on the wall - it requires tremendous work and arrangement of the entire safety system related to the airline's flights. This is the system of responsibility that is steadily developed by the airline, and each year this system is checked by foreign experts. At the moment, the company is being inspected by the group of six people who examine the organization of flights.
- Russian airlines have to purchase aircraft in other countries. In addition to the problem with the up-to-date equipment, there is shortage of pilots in the country. Are we going to import flying personnel in future?
- I think that we should be ready for this, it is inevitable. We intend to join the World Trade Organization; Russia is steadily integrating into the global economic system. I believe that very soon we will have foreign pilot attending post-flight debriefing at Ural Airlines. We will select the best pilots worldwide. And if we find out that the best pilot works in Tunisia, we will bring him from there.
- So, it is high time that foreign pilots studied Russian, isn't it?
- Not at all. The pilot may speak English. We will, probably, send him to courses so that he could speak Russian a little, and it will be enough. All the flying world population speaks English.
Frankly, we are receiving quite many resumes from foreign applicants - from Australia and European countries. However, the RF Air Code does not allow employing of pilots from other countries. At the same time, all countries recruit foreign pilots - why should Russia keep being a closed country?
- Sergey Nikolayevich, I even do not know what is actually more important for passengers today: safety of the flight or the price of the ticket. Do we take risk when we buy a cheap ticket? Do higher rates imply a higher level of safety?
- There can be no high rates for air transportation a priori. Today, we offer our flights at the rates that are lower than most of the railway rates. Passengers tend to neglect the increasing railroad rates. The rates offered by Ural Airlines increased on average by 1% over January-October this year on the year-to-year basis. Over the same period, the price for fuel went up by 30%, while the cost of airport services jumped by 20%.
It looks like no one can see this, though it calls for attention. There should be at last some order in the fuel pricing. No more "flying around" this trivial issue! We need nothing but alternative refueling complexes at airports and kerosene sales at the stock exchange.
Let's work normally as they do in the aviation worldwide. Transparent business rather than secret deals "under the table". If the refueling operator has bought kerosene for 25 thousand rubles for a ton at the stock exchange and is selling it to us at the price of 30 thousand, its antimonopoly service will have to ask about the 5 thousand markup.
Today, it is not clear at what price kerosene is purchased and how refueling operators set their markups. As a result, we face runaway prices. I am amazed that from year to year top officials talk about gasoline prices without saying a single word about aviation kerosene. Tens of millions of Russian people take advantage of services provided by airlines, and the problem is hushed up. Let's stop suppressing it, let's talk openly and bluntly!
- You speak about rising prices and insignificant increases in the rates for air traffic. How were Ural Airlines able to increase their earnings almost three times this year as compared to 2010?
- It is not possible to survive in the sky in such conditions. Many companies go bust. Small-sized companies died one after another, now it's the turn of large companies. Ural Airlines have survived due to prevention actions aimed at cutting expenses.
We "grounded" four operational Tu-154 aircraft, absolutely serviceable, with permits for flights to Europe. We "put them to the fence" to reduce fuel consumption. We have downsized some personnel that dealt with "tupolevs" - both air and ground.
The company is building its own simulator complex, which will be opened in April 2012. At present, there are three simulators in Moscow, and the fourth simulator will be delivered to us right from the assembly line in Holland. It will be the first Russian simulator that will be located outside Moscow. Why did Ural Airlines buy it? Because all our airbus pilots are trained outside Russia - in Prague and Dubai, which means tremendous expenses to us. Furthermore, we will be able to use our simulator for additional programs offered to our pilots without having to adapt to the number of hours scheduled at foreign training centers. If a pilot needs four rather than three hours of training to enhance safety of flights - he will get them.
- Taking into account the company's excellent performance over January-September in 2011 in terms of its earnings (276 million rubles) and revenue (13.138 billion rubles), what performance levels does the company intend to reach next year?
- This year we have acquired eight airbuses under lease agreements; it is unprecedented for Ural Airlines - we have never leased so many aircraft before. We were right in our lease decision; the estimates are for the market that we have developed. In 2012 we are most likely to lease three more airbuses.
In 2011 we will have 2.5 million passengers, and in 2012 - 3.5 million. It means that this year the passenger flow has increased by - 37% as compared to the previous year, whereas next year it is expected to increase by 25%. We will find these passengers and put them into the airplanes of Ural Airlines, for we know how to do this!
The interview was taken by Vadim Dynin
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