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Russian pilots raise alarm over safety at Aeroflot

A union of Russian pilots at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport on Tuesday accused the country's flagship carrier Aeroflot of endangering passengers' lives by overworking staff in search for profit.

MOSCOW: A union of Russian pilots at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport on Tuesday accused the country's flagship carrier Aeroflot of endangering passengers' lives by overworking staff in search for profit.

The Sheremetyevo Cockpit Personnel Association said that Russia's main airline was employing "tired pilots who can fall asleep at any moment."

"Because of Aeroflot's greed, the safety of citizens is in grave doubt," the association said in a statement.

The company did not address the union's complaint directly when contacted by AFP. But its press service said by email that "our passengers' and flight safety are top priorities of Aeroflot".

Russia's small regional airlines are notorious for their poor flight safety record.

The airlineratings.com flight tracker said Russia witnessed the world's worst crash of 2013 when 50 died in a Tatarstan Airlines Boeing 737 that exploded on landing in November in the Volga River city of Kazan.

Yet state-controlled Aeroflot is believed to have the best record in the country.

The planecrashinfo.com site said Aeroflot has had only one deadly accident in more than a decade - a 2008 crash that killed 88 and was later blamed on a drunken pilot - and the carrier has recently taken huge steps to improve its often mocked image.

The company has in fact been flying high since adopting improved standards once it joined the SkyTeam alliance in 2006.

It has scooped up several awards for eastern European service in the process and SkyTeam now calls Aeroflot's fleet "one of the most modern, youngest and fastest-growing... in Europe."

The national flag carrier this year also burnished its image by becoming the official carrier of the Manchester United football club.

Yet its share of the Russian market has been eroded by cheaper local rivals and now stands at just 40 per cent - a far cry from the days in the Soviet era when it proclaimed itself the world's largest airline.

The airline's statement noted that "Aeroflot was the first Russian carrier to enter the (International Air Transport Association's) Operational Safety Audit Registry, and has confirmed the certificate for the fifth time in 2013."

But the pilots accuse it of failing to compensate them fairly for night flights and thousands of hours of overtime.

The dispute stretches back several years and has resulted in a July Moscow City Court ruling for Aeroflot to pay out debts owed to pilots over 17 months.

The airline has contested the ruling, and the union has since seen three of its leaders jailed on disputed and still unproven embezzlement charges.

The pilots blame the arrest on Aeroflot management's attempts to discredit their cause.

The dispute has even seen the pilots send a letter of complaint to Russian President Vladimir Putin that has thus far gone unanswered.

Their cause has also been picked up by the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation and the International Trade Union Confederation - the world's largest labour organisation.

"While aviation companies in Russia have posted record profits, flight crews have been reduced and aviation infrastructure continues to decay," the International Transport Workers' Federation said in a letter of support for the Russian pilots last month.

"That is why the safety standards and infrastructure are still in a very poor situation," the letter said.

Aeroflot reported a 15 per cent year-on-year jump in passenger numbers and an 84 per cent increase in profit to $545 million (400 million euros) for the first nine months of 2013.

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