The fatal plane crash in Russia is a terrible human tragedy, and has global significance that will continue to reverberate. On Feb. 11, an Antonov An-148 aircraft went down near Moscow soon after taking off. All 71 people on board died, including six crewmembers.
Saratov Airlines Flight 703 went down near the village of Stepanovskoe, about 50 miles southeast of Moscow. The destination of the flight was the city of Orsk, approximately 1,000 miles away near the border with Kazakhstan. The flight crew did not report any problems in advance of the fatal conclusion.
The crash is above all a human tragedy, but takes place in the wider context of remarkable global improvement in aviation safety. During 2017, there were no fatalities from commercial passenger flights anywhere in the world.
That is a first. By contrast, in 2016 there were a reported 16 accidents and 303 deaths in commercial aviation. There has not been a fatal civilian crash in the United States since 2009.
This year began with this important and reassuring information. Reuters on New Year’s Day reported the important fact, quoting both the Website Aviation Safety Network and the consulting company To70, based in the Netherlands.
That does not mean the skies are entirely free of trouble. Both cargo and turbo prop planes had serious crashes. Ten fatal accidents killed 44 people, plus 35 on the ground.
In national terms, this crash represents fundamental comprehensive problems in Russia’s society as well as economy. President Vladimir Putin has proven himself a gifted diplomatic and political player in international as well as national terms. Russia’s military is formidable and highly effective, demonstrated most recently in reversing the fortunes of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Not long ago, United Nations officials, American diplomats and others were confidently predicting the collapse of Syria’s national government. Such sources of late have grown silent or at least more circumspect. Russia’s history includes the defeat and destruction of massive military invasions launched by Napoleon’s revolutionary France early in the 19th century, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany in the 20th century. They know how to fight — and win.
Putin’s influence reflects respect for Russia’s military forces, despite economic weakness. When Putin took power at the end of 1999, Russia’s economy was in free fall, with complete and total collapse apparently imminent.
He deserves great credit for stopping and then reversing that trend, but anything resembling sustained strong economic development has proven elusive. Corruption is widespread, punctuated by gangster violence. Concessions to market economics and the associated rule of law by the clique in control have been grudging.
Regional carrier Saratov Airlines provides a symptom of this fundamental structural weakness. The company’s history dates back to formation of the original organization in 1931. During the long communist decades, Saratov was part of tangled air travel bureaucracy Aeroflot. In fall 2016, security concerns led to restriction of flights to domestic routes, but that lasted only approximately six months.
By contrast, in the United States and other advanced economies air safety has improved steadily, greatly aided by deregulation of the airline industry. In this realm as in others, President Jimmy Carter deserves credit for policy success.
Carter appointee Alfred Kahn on the Civil Aeronautics Board pressed airline deregulation and opening of other sectors. Turmoil resulted, but prices declined, efficiencies increased and so did safety.
Free markets properly regulated free people to earn, live better — and fly.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.