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MOSCOW, February 4 (RIA Novosti) – A decision by Russia’s civil aviation watchdog to ground low-cost airline Red Wings took effect Monday, allowing two other companies, Aeroflot and VIM Avia, to take over the budget carrier’s flights.
Red Wings, owned by billionaire former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev, suffered a fatal accident December 29 when one of its eight Tupolev Tu-204 airliners skidded off the runway at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, killing five of the eight crew on board.
The aviation watchdog, Rosaviatsia, said in a statement released Friday that the suspension of Red Wings’ operator’s certificate “is not connected to the reasons for the accident,” but resulted from a week-long snap inspection completed on January 16, which pointed to “numerous significant violations” in the organization of flights, servicing of planes and pilot training, as well as other “systemic” flaws.
Red Wings said Monday that it has not yet received the official results of the inspection, adding that, "as soon as that document is received, the company intends to swiftly respond to all the aviation agency’s claims, so as to resume flying."
Meanwhile, most Red Wings flights will be handled by Aeroflot, both airlines said on their websites Friday, with the hand-off beginning at 9pm that night and tentatively ending March 20. This arrangement covers flights between Moscow and six Russian cities: Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Ufa and Yekaterinburg. The airline VIM Avia will be taking over flights to Makhachkala, in the restive North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, over the same time period, according to Red Wings.
Lebedev, the company’s owner, has said, however, that Red Wings might not resume working even if its operator's license is reinstated.
On January 14, prior to the end of the snap inspection, Red Wings said it had carried out safety checks on all its Tu-204s in accordance with instructions from Rosaviatsia and found all fit to fly, and was continuing to use them as normal. The airline said it had undergone routine inspections on December 28 by Transport Ministry watchdog Rostransnadzor, and passed them.
Russian investigators said last week they intended to question Transport Ministry officials to determine whether Tupolev Tu-204 airliners should have been grounded after the crash.
While the final cause of the December 29 accident is yet to be established, the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK), a flight-safety investigation body, said in an initial statement January 24 that the Tu-204's reverse thrust system had failed to activate properly after the aircraft touched down, causing it to increase speed and careen off the end of the runway and onto a highway.
The only other fatal accident involving a Tu-204 was the loss of an Aviastar-TU-operated airliner landing at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport in March 2010, blamed on pilot error, according to aviation news website FlightGlobal.
Lebedev, whose business empire includes banks, UK media and a stake in Aeroflot, said last year he was ready to sell out of Russia and retire, because of what he claimed was “relentless pressure from the authorities.” Lebedev is reported to have a tense relationship with many of his former KGB colleagues, including Russian President Vladimir Putin; one of his media assets is the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, known for its harsh criticism of Kremlin policies.
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