Aeroflot in the 1980s
By the late 1980s Aeroflot played a major role in transporting passengers but a minor role in transporting cargo. Civil aviation was the third most important transporter of passengers after the highway and railroad systems in terms of passenger-kilometers. Although it transported only a small fraction of the cargo shipped on the other modes of transportation, Aeroflot was the preferred carrier where speed was essential. Aeroflot provided many services not performed by Western airlines, such as the spraying of fertilizers and pesticides over fields and forests, forest fire detection and control, pipeline inspection, medical evacuation, logistical support for oil and other exploration and extraction ventures, construction projects, and scientific expeditions to polar regions. Frequently, Aeroflot airplanes or helicopters were the sole means of reaching remote Siberian or northern settlements. Lastly, Aeroflot's crews and aircraft constituted the strategic air transport reserve of the Soviet armed forces.
In the mid- and late 1980s, Aeroflot operated a diversified fleet of both jet and turboprop aircraft, designed for either cargo or passengers and adapted to the geographic and climatic conditions of the country and to its economic needs. Many of the aircraft had raised wings to operate from unimproved airstrips, including frozen marshes or Arctic ice floes, and capable of lifting tall, wide, and heavy vehicles, including medium and heavy tanks.
For tasks other than conventional passenger and cargo transportation, Aeroflot had available many types of general and special-purpose fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. For geological, weather, and other scientific and exploration missions, Aeroflot used specially equipped airplanes and helicopters. Medical assistance and evacuation, especially in remote areas, was provided by aircraft such as the An-14 and An-28 and by the Ka-26 and Mi-8 helicopters, which were able to operate from most level surfaces. Various types of agricultural missions were performed by the work horse, the An-2, and its updated version, the An-3, as well as the Ka-26 helicopter.
Aeroflot was also responsible for such services as ice patrol in the Arctic Ocean and escorting of ships through frozen seas, oil exploration, power line surveillance, and transportation and heavy lifting support on construction projects. For the latter tasks, Aeroflot used, in addition to smaller helicopters, the Mi-10 flying crane, a twin-turbine aircraft with a lifting capacity of 11,000 to 14,000 kilograms, depending on the engines. Hauling of heavy cargo, including vehicles, was performed by the world's largest helicopter, the Mi-26. Its unusual eight-blade rotor enabled it to lift a maximum payload of some twenty tons.
In 1986 Aeroflot served over 3,600 population centers and had a route network, excluding overlapping routes, that extended 1,156,000 kilometers, of which 185,000 kilometers were international routes. Aeroflot's share of total freight transported by all means of transportation was only 0.01 percent, or 3,157,000 tons originated. Nevertheless, it carried 116.1 million passengers (almost 19 percent of the total passenger-kilometers), of whom 3.4 million were on international flights. The disproportion between domestic and international air travel reflected not only foreign travel restrictions imposed on Soviet citizens but underscored the importance of aircraft as an essential--sometimes the sole--link to remote cities, towns, and settlements. Thus, in 1986 Siberia, the Far North, and the Far East, although sparsely populated, accounted for 26 percent of Aeroflot's cargo and passenger transport.
Aeroflot also connected the Soviet Union with ninety-seven foreign countries; the main international hub was Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport. Other cities with international airports included Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Yerevan, Tashkent, Irkutsk, and Khabarovsk. Aeroflot's domestic flights were frequently harrowing experiences for both Western and Soviet passengers, who complained of long waits and indifferent service at ticket offices, seemingly interminable waiting at airport terminals poorly equipped with food and toilet facilities, passengers forced to sit in hot airplane cabins without air conditioning, and indifferent cabin crews. Shortages of fuel and spare parts were among the major causes of delayed or canceled flights. According to the head of the Ministry of Civil Aviation's Main Administration for Aviation Work and Transport Operations, a shortage of fuel was expected to keep at least 15 million people from flying on Aeroflot in 1988.
The close relationship between Aeroflot and the Soviet armed forces was underscored by the fact that the minister of civil aviation has been a high-ranking general or marshal of the Air Forces. Aeroflot pilots held reserve commissions in the Air Forces. The 1,600 medium- and long-range passenger and cargo aircraft of Aeroflot were also part of the strategic air transport reserve, ready to provide immediate airlift support to the armed forces. Indeed, many aircraft in Aeroflot's inventory were of the same basic design as military aircraft and, even when loaded with bulky cargo and vehicles, were capable of operating from unimproved fields. They were characterized by high wings, low fuselages with cargo/vehicle loading ramps, and landing gear suitable for unimproved or marshy terrain. Short-range airplanes and helicopters were available for appropriate military support missions. Civil aviation also served as a cover for military operations. According to a Western authority, military aircraft belonging to the Military Transport Aviation (Voennaia transportnaia aviatsiia) had been painted in Aeroflot colors for use as food relief and arms or personnel transports to foreign countries.
In the event of future military conflict, it was expected that Aeroflot would again be utilized to augment the regular military air effort. Application of Aeroflot to military operations was reflected by reports from Czechoslovakia in 1968 wherein the former Aeroflot manager at Prague allegedly returned with and guided in the initial aircraft, the first several of which were Aeroflot rather than SAAF.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 signaled the demise of Aeroflot. Its fleet of 11,000 aircraft was divided into dozens of little independent airlines after 1991. A new Aeroflot - named Aeroflot Russian International Airlines (ARIA) - was established in 1992, and operated flights in and out of Russia.
Despite losing its monopoly, Aeroflot remained the largest domestic carrier in 2005. Its 90 planes made flights to 54 countries from the hub city, Moscow, accounting for about 50 percent of Russia's air passenger kilometers. However, in 2005 foreign carriers increased their passengers by 12 percent, compared with a 2 percent increase by domestic lines.
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