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The social storm that hit Moscow’s airports ahead of the New Year was another failure of Russia’s decrepit infrastructure, and not just the freak weather.
The capital’s airports were struck by freezing rain on December 25 sending them into chaos and riots as nearly 20,000 passengers were affected due to grounded aircraft and collapsed power lines.
According to the Russian Metorological Centre (Rosgidromet) the ice rain, which lasted more than four hours, was the heaviest since 1971.
“Up in the atmosphere, at an altitude of about 1.3 kilometres, stratified layers of warm air from the Mediterranean meet cold ones from Siberia,” said the head of Rosgidromet, Roman Vilfand, explaining the rare event. “A rain, formed in the upper (and warmer) layer passed through the cold layers turned into an ice right at the surface.”
After falling it formed a heavy crust covering aircraft, electrical wires and, crucially, trees, which then fell on the power lines destroying them.
But industry analysts say Russia’s outdated infrastructure meant the country was unable to deal with the freak weather.
“This technological disaster is a sad continuation of a chain of disasters, including the accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant, Raspadskaya mine and others,” said Nikita Melnikov, an analyst at Aton.
Domodedovo was fully paralysed by the blackout, while most of the flights from Sheremetyevo were cancelled due to a shortage of de-icing fluid essential for preparing planes, which were covered with a five centimetre layer of ice.
Both airlines and airport management cut corners to maximise profits, analysts said, particular in terms of keeping reserves of key equipment such as de-icer.
“It’s true both in regard to power generation and [airports that key equipment is missing] such as de-icing fluid for example,” said Georgy Tarakanov, an analyst at VTB.
The situation had been brewing due to the lack of investment and the ineffectiveness of regulators to control the airports, particularly in emergencies.
“The ability to influence this situation on behalf of state regulators is quite limited now, and there is no clarity in what situations they can declare an emergency and close the airport,” said Aton’s Melnikov.
And the events before New Year highlighted the need for tighter regulation with management skimping on key infrastructure, such as backup power stations, to keep the airport running in the increasingly frequent poor weather.
“This back-up equipment can be used just once every five years, meaning that it is difficult to get a return on investment of this kind,” said VTB’s Tarakanov.
Lack of experience
Aeroflot chief Vitaly Saveliyev, who took charge in 2009, implemented a cost-cutting programme to get the airline through the crisis.
One source, who asked not to be identified, said that many specialists were fired as part of a restructuring programme. The airline then hired younger employees as the economy started to recover, but they had less experience, particularly in crisis situations.
The company also changed their supplier of de-icing fluid, the source said.
Airports and airlines have come into conflict in recent years, and Tarakanov of VTB says the confrontation between them could have contributed to the chaos.
In 2009 Sheremetyevo had serious problems with luggage delivery because of a dispute with Aeroflot over control of the terminals. The airline still wants more control over the newly constructed and reconstructed terminals Aeroflot had invested in.
Sheremetyevo’s general director, Mikhail Vasilenko, accused the carrier of incompetence and a lack of concern for passengers in a post on his LiveJournal blog.
Hundreds of dissatisfied passengers flocked to the blog swearing they would not return to Aeroflot.
Aeroflot deputy director Vladimir Smirnov promptly fell on his sword, along with Domodedovo’s general director, Vyacheslav Nekrasov, while the airline’s top managers lost their fourth quarter bonuses.
Oleg Panteleyev, senior analyst at the AviaPort industry news agency, said the dismissals were the result of too much focus on profit and not enough on passengers by simply applying the minimum standards necessary.
“This model of management works from the standpoint of obtaining financial results, but in the event of an emergency the results in December were inevitable,” he said.
“A question repeatedly arose on how focused on passengers our airlines are,” he added. “If staff interacted with people every 15 minutes, then much of the claims and tension could have been avoided.”
And this lack of personal attention could take its toll on the financial results with disgruntled passengers preparing lawsuits.
‘Hell and chaos’
Passengers at Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo described the scenes as “hell and chaos” as thousands of people got stranded at Moscow’s two largest airports.
Ivan Potapov, a 23-year old from Moscow, said inaccurate information caused people to stay, and his flight to Egypt with UT-Air was delayed several times.
“I had to wait while they shifted the departure time many times,” he told The Moscow News. “We were told that we had to wait from 15 minutes to one hour lots of times, and then finally we took off with a six hour delay.”
Bloggers say the unreliable information caused the riots that broke out over the terminal as passengers stuck in the airport overnight tried to get flight details.
“We tried to break through [the barriers] to the flights control centre to at least get some reliable information,” blogger Mixxtr wrote after spending the night at Sheremetyevo on December 27.
Police offices and junior airport and airline authorities were assaulted, reports say, as angry customers looked for scapegoats.
Much of the blame fell on Aeroflot’s management and their inexperienced staff. The company could now face several law suits.
“It finally became absolutely obvious to me that the Aeroflot management failed,” Mixxtr wrote. “They’ve set up not only passengers but also their junior staff.”
Other bloggers say the loud speaker at terminal D did not announce what was happening, while no announcements at all were made in English. Reports also say the airport did not provide water or blankets for passengers.
Hopeful passengers added they were also virtually held hostage in the departure lounge as taxi firms ramped up prices, and airlines promised imminent take offs.
Amateur videos from Domodedovo have already been given the tag of “best budget films of 2010” as thousands of people struggle in the dark with lighters or mobiles for light.
Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #02"
Meanwhile, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov left Moscow for St. Petersburg on a half-empty VIP flight during the turmoil, Just Russia Duma Deputy Oksana Dmitriyeva wrote on her party’s website.
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