Russia's aging air fleet needs replacing

Fans of KHL's Lokomotiv march to commemorate the victims of a plane crash that killed most of the...

Fans of KHL's Lokomotiv march to commemorate the victims of a plane crash that killed most of the club's players, in downtown Yaroslavl, Sep. 7, 2011. (DENIS SINYAKOV/Reuters)

DENIS POISSANT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:11 PM ET

The first time I boarded a Russian plane for a domestic flight, I admit to feeling slightly worried.

It was January 2009 and a Moscow team was flying to Chelyabinsk, near Siberia.

The KHL was in its inaugural year and Le Journal de Montreal had sent me to file a series of reports.

A simple glance out the windows of the Aeroflot plane made one think. The windows looked like they belonged in a decrepit log cabin.

All of the passengers applauded enthusiastically when the old plane touched down smoothly on the runway.

Did the passengers clap out of habit? No doubt. But also, I think, some form of collective relief.

Declining stars

Welcome to the heart of Russia, a nation of striking contrasts.

The story of the KHL is typical in a country that has experienced tremendous growth thanks to oil and gas.

Sitting on huge petro-dollars, Russia's black-gold magnates have decided to restore their homeland's image by creating a league to compete directly with the NHL.

After years of misery, Russians have developed a thirst for national pride.

The KHL is able to attract top stars such as Alexander Radulov because they are assessed an attractive 13% tax rate.

Previously the league was able to land only declining players such as Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin. Neither was able to recapture past glory after promising starts.

The deadly plane crash Wednesday that claimed the lives of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl players certainly will discourage players from joining the KHL in the future.

Assuming the league ever recovers from the disaster, it will be hard pressed to find alternatives to Russia's aging air fleet.

The league's easternmost club, Amur Khabarovsk, is closer to Japan than Moscow. It's more than 8,000 km from the westernmost team, Dinamo Riga in Latvia.

Kremlin in control

Logistical and safety challenges won't prevent the KHL from continuing its aggressive expansion. The league's business model couldn't be more different from North American standards.

More than half of the KHL's teams are under direct state control, and the Kremlin tells the oil oligarchs which teams get first dibs at the funding.

The clubs are, in fact, little more than showcases for sponsors, and the government is all too eager to curry favour with fans.

The result? Nearly 20 new arenas have been built since 2001 to house KHL franchises.

You can buy tickets for just a few dollars. A team that loses money need not worry -- the government will find a solution.

Aging fleet

All of this activity makes KHL president Alexander Medvedev a very busy man. He doubles as an export executive for the energy giant Gazprom.

He already works 18-hour days to flood Europe with Russian gas and secure his country's place at the centre of the top of the gas game.

Now that he has lost an entire team to an air disaster, Medvedev will lose even more sleep as he embarks on the league's most important public relations exercise to date.

Was the plane safe? We might not know the answer until the investigation is completed.

The Yak-42 jet was only 18 years old, far younger than many plane criss-crossing the Russian skies.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he wants to retire older Yak-42s, built in 1980. About 100 of the planes are still in service.

The sooner the better.


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