Monday, January 15, 2018

Russia Today has Only 73 Airports in the Far North

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 – The Russian Far North which Vladimir Putin hopes to transform into a center for the development of the country in the 21st century and the basis for projecting Russian power into the Arctic has only 73 working airfields and an inadequate number of planes and personnel serving them.

            These shortages will make the achievement of Moscow’s aims in the Arctic far more difficult than many think, commentator Aleksandr Shimberg says, because “for the development of the Russian Arctic, aviation has become a necessary condition for any activity” (

            There are serious problems with the number of airports, the number and kind of planes, and the number and qualifications of pilots, none of which is susceptible to being changed overnight.  There are only 73 airports, far fewer than the much smaller US state of Alaska has (450) and more critical because of an even greater shortage of roads.

            Aviation in the Russian North has always depended on planes developed first for the military, but the planes of this kind created in the Soviet period are wearing out and not being replaced. As a result, there are fewer small planes which can carry people from place to place within the Arctic.

            That in turn leads to a situation which recalls the more general one in Soviet times with Russians who want to travel from one place to another in the Arctic having to go via Moscow, as residents of Vorkuta and Murmansk still have to. Without subsidies – and those have disappeared in some cases – that situation will not change.  

            And there are too few pilots and ground service personnel to handle a large expansion in flights even if Moscow orders one. It takes a long time to train pilots in general and even more to train them for operating safely in Arctic conditions, and ground personnel must be compensated if they are going to be willing to remain in isolated outposts in the North.

            But these three things do not exhaust the problems of aviation in the Far North, Shimberg says.  “The current state of air carrier law of the Russian Federation doesn’t allow for the development of local and regional aviation as the basis of transport communications,” even though in the North there is no other way.

            Russian law, however, doesn’t allow local carriers to engage in many of the activities, including crop dusting, monitoring and rescuing, that aviation in the North must engage in to survive and that the North must have if it is to develop. Regional officials have complained about this for years, but so far Moscow hasn’t acted, despite all the talk about Arctic development.

            Indeed, it appears, although Shimberg doesn’t say this, that if the Kremlin has to choose between central control and the development of the country by means of more flexibility for the regions, it will choose the former even though that almost guarantees that the latter will have to be sacrificed.   

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