Date
May 23, 2018

Air safety standards in Russia are notoriously inconsistent, but travelers visiting during the FIFA 2018 World Cup™ who restrict their flights to the country’s major airlines should not face elevated levels of threat. Travelers should, however, take care to avoid flying on smaller carriers, as some have inadequate safety standards, poor safety records, and questionable financial stability.

Airlines

Air safety standards vary considerably among Russian airlines. Major Russian airlines operate modern fleets of mostly US- and European-built aircraft and have operational and safety standards comparable to those of larger US and Western European carriers. Some smaller airlines, however, continue to operate Soviet-era aircraft and have questionable operational and safety standards. Several prominent Russian carriers have ceased operations in the past three years, but Russian authorities will almost certainly ensure that no airline bankruptcies disrupt travel during the World Cup tournament. Authorities will also allow foreign airlines to operate domestic charter flights in Russia during the World Cup.

Aeroflot (SU) is by far Russia’s largest carrier, and will likely serve as the main airline for fans and sponsors during the FIFA 2018 World Cup. Aeroflot and its subsidiary Rossiya (FV) will be responsible for flying competing teams around Russia during the tournament. While Aeroflot historically has a poor safety record, its safety standards have improved considerably in the past two decades. Nearly all of Aeroflot’s aircraft are modern Boeing and Airbus designs, with the exception of a small number of modern Russian-built Sukhoi SSJ-100 aircraft. Both Aeroflot and Rossiya are listed as “Preferred” in iJET’s Worldcue Airline Monitor.

Other Worldcue Airline Monitor-identified carriers: 

Preferred:

  • Pobeda (DP)
  • S7 Airlines (S7)
  • Ural Airlines (U6)
  • Aurora (HZ)
  • Nordavia (5N)
  • NordStar (Y7)
  • Nordwind (N4)
  • RusLine (7R)
  • UVT Aero (RT)
  • Yamal Airlines (YC)

Preferred, but with a note of caution

  • UTAir (UT)
  • Alrosa Air Company (6R)
  • Angara Airlines (2G)
  • IrAero (IO)
  • Red Wings Airlines (WZ)
  • Severstal (D2)
  • Yakutia Airlines (R3)

Not preferred 

  • Gazpromavia (4G)
  • Izhavia (I8)
  • Saratov Airlines/Ivolga Airlines (6W)

Airports

With the exception of Moscow, all of the FIFA 2018 World Cup™ host cities – Kaliningrad, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov, Saint Petersburg, Samara, Saransk, Sochi, Volgograd, and Yekaterinburg – have one major airport. All have modern terminal facilities, though some of the terminals are relatively small and basic.

International flights to Moscow may arrive at one of the city’s three major airports, all of which have modern facilities comparable to those in Western Europe:

  • Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO), located northwest of central Moscow, is Russia’s busiest airport and Aeroflot’s main hub. The airport has four terminals arranged in two separate complexes, which can make it a challenge to navigate, especially when connecting between domestic and international flights. Sheremetyevo is home to Russia’s only non-stop flights to North America.
  • Domodedovo Airport (DME) is located southeast of Moscow and popular with major international carriers from Europe and the Middle East; S7 airlines operates a hub at the airport. The airport has two terminals, both of which are located in the same building.
  • Vnukovo International Airport (VKO) is located southwest of Moscow and mostly served by smaller Russian and foreign carriers. All commercial flights at Vnukovo operate out of the same terminal building. Vnukovo also receives a large portion of Moscow’s private business jet traffic, though all three Moscow airports have appropriate facilities for private jets.

Outside of Moscow, Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport (LED) is the largest airport in Russia. All commercial flights at the airport operate out of one terminal. Many European carriers serve the airport, and it is also a hub for Rossiya. The airports in the other host cities are relatively small, single-terminal airports. The largest of these are the airports in Sochi (AER) and Yekaterinburg (SVX). With the exception of Saransk (SKX), all the airports have international flights, though many are seasonal services to vacation destinations in Greece and Turkey, or services to other countries in the former Soviet Union. All of the terminals at airports in World Cup cities have been built or modernized since 2000.

Terrorist groups have a history of targeting Russia’s airline industry, and airport security will almost certainly be very tight during the FIFA 2018 World Cup™. In August 2004, Chechen separatist suicide bombers downed two flights that had departed Moscow Domodedovo Airport, killing 90 people in total. A suicide bomber later killed 37 people at Moscow Domodedovo in January 2011. A terrorist bomb also allegedly downed a Russian flight from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, to Saint Petersburg in October 2015, killing 224 people, though the final investigation into the crash has not been completed. Authorities will almost certainly impose stringent security checks at all Russian airports during the FIFA 2018 World Cup™, which will likely include multilayered security screening for all individuals entering an airport.

Air Safety Record

Russia has a poor air safety record, but most of the recent fatal accidents in the country have involved small carriers, and most of the country’s major carriers have relatively clean recent safety records. In the past decade, there have been 15 fatal accidents on commercial passenger flights in Russia, all but one of which involved a Russian airline. By comparison, US carriers only suffered two fatal accidents on commercial passenger flights in the same time period, with an additional fatal crash involving a foreign carrier, despite the US having a much higher volume of commercial flights than Russia.

 Despite Russia’s poor air safety record, the country’s major carriers have relatively strong safety records. Of the 15 fatal accidents in the past decade, only one involved a Russian airline that is among the 10 largest in the country. None of Russia’s three largest carriers, Aeroflot, S7, or Rossiya, have had fatal accidents in the past decade, though all three have had fatal accidents in the past. Most of Russia’s larger carriers have replaced their outdated Soviet-era designs with modern, Western-built aircraft. Smaller airlines, however, continue to operate Soviet-era designs, which have significantly worse safety records than the modern Western-built aircraft.

The most recent major air crash in Russia occurred on Feb. 11, 2018, when Saratov Airlines (6W) flight 703 crashed shortly after taking off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing all 71 people onboard the Antonov An-148. Initial reports suggest that the aircraft may have suffered from icing on its instrument sensors; the pilots reportedly did not turn on the aircraft’s anti-icing systems prior to takeoff. Russian officials have since threatened to rescind the airline’s operating certificate due to safety violations. Nevertheless, the airline continues to operate and is in the process of rebranding to Ivolga Airlines.

Conclusion

The recent safety records of Russian carriers demonstrate the importance of choosing appropriate airlines when traveling in Russia. Travelers who take a careless approach to air travel during the FIFA 2018 World Cup™ may find themselves facing unnecessary elevated levels of risk, but travelers who take the time to understand the risks of flying in Russia can mitigate against many of those risks by making appropriate decisions about their air travel. 

See Russia: What You Need to Know for 2018 FIFA World Cup for additional travel, security, and personal safety information. Check back often, as new information is added regularly.

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