The major airline company of the Russian Republic.
The Russian Federation of Soviet Socialist Republics formed its first airline, Dobrolet (an acronym for “Russian volunteer air fleet”) in 1923, and two years later, Ukrainian Airways, or Ukvozdukhput, was started. In 1928, the Soviet government merged the two lines into a national airline under the name “Dobroflot” (also known as Dobrovolnii Flot, “volunteer fleet”). In 1932, during the period of the First Five-Year Plan, the government reorganized the company as the Main Civil Air Fleet Administration, or Aeroflot, and also established aircraft and aircraft engine plants. By 1935, Aeroflot had routes throughout the Soviet Union.
Aeroflot handled all civilian air service, including passenger and freight transport on international and domestic routes, and engaged in other air activities such as crop spraying, aerial surveying, air rescue, and medical transport. During the Soviet period, Aeroflot used Soviet-made aircraft exclusively, initially making Li-2’s with twenty-four seats modeled on the Douglas DC-3. The company introduced the Ilushin Il-12 during World War II and the Il-14 in 1947. The Il-14’s and Li-2’s became the airline’s standards. To meet the growing need for passenger service, in 1956 Aeroflot became the first airline in the world to introduce nonmilitary jet service with Tu-104 turbojets carrying one hundred passengers. From 1957 to 1959, the company added the turboprops Il-18, Tu-114, An-10, and An-24, and in 1965 the turboprop Antei (An-22), the world’s largest transport plane. In 1968, it became one of the first companies to use supersonic aircraft, the Tupolev Tu-144, for civilian flights. The Tu-154, also introduced in 1968, carried 164 passengers at a speed of 1,000 kilometers per hour.
In 1991, Aeroflot had 5,400 planes, including more than 1,300 airliners, plus thousands of smaller craft, and carried 138 million passengers to over 3,500 cities in the Soviet Union as well as 100 countries on its international routes. Aeroflot was then the world’s largest airline, accounting for 15 percent of all scheduled commercial civilian traffic. However, with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the company was greatly reduced. It remained the airline of the Russian Republic, changing its name to Aeroflot-Russian International Airlines, and invited private investors to participate along with the government in backing the company. The airline faced new problems associated with operating in free markets, such as competition from private companies and airlines of the other former Soviet republics not only in domestic travel but also on international routes. Furthermore, in 1999 the Russian government charged the company with embezzling funds through connections with Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oil and media magnate suspected of criminal activity. The line’s general director, Valery Okulov, son-in-law of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, continued in his position, however. Okulov fired ten top executives and discontinued routes which had been involved with the embezzlement. Yeltsin’s and Okulov’s opponents questioned the latter’s leadership of the airline, but in 2000 the airline improved its image and performance.
In June, 1992, the Russian Federation reorganized Aeroflot into a public joint stock company, with the Russian government owning 51 percent of the stock. The other shareholders included both Russian (chiefly the company’s fourteen thousand employees) and foreign investors. In 1997, Okulov was appointed general director. The company had 151 representatives abroad and 3 in Russia: St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Khabarovsk. In the post-Communist period, Aeroflot bought foreign airplanes as well as those made in Russia. At the end of the twentieth century, the fleet had well over one hundred planes, including Boeing 737’s and 767’s, Airbus A310-300’s, and Ilushin 96-300’s. Some of the Ilushins had American Pratt & Whitney engines. The company carried about four million passengers and 90 tons of cargo annually. In contrast, a competing airline such as Delta had over 550 planes and carried over ninety million passengers. After 1991, over three hundred spinoff lines called “babyflots” emerged, taking over much of Aeroflot’s equipment and routes. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Aeroflot flew to 150 cities in 93 countries. It still provided 70 percent of all Russian air travel.
Like other post-Communist Russian companies, Aeroflot presented a flashy exterior, with luxurious corporate offices in New York and London, attractive reports and brochures, a World Wide Web site, an offshore subsidiary in Switzerland (which was, however, connected to the Berezovsky scandal), but it still had problems stemming from Soviet inefficiency, and depended on the Russian government for subsidies and keeping monopolies on internal Russian routes. In 1997, American and European banks loaned the company $1.5 billion to buy planes. Although Aeroflot service on domestic flights was inferior, its international service improved and its prices were very competitive. It also retained smoking sections, unlike other airlines. Nevertheless, in 2000, travelers voted Aeroflot the world’s worst airline.
During the Soviet period, crashes were not reported and are difficult to track. In the post-Communist period, when news of air disasters was reported, the world became aware of the dismal record of Aeroflot. In 1994, there were a record number of domestic crashes and the United States embassy warned its personnel not to use the line for travel within Russia. In the same year, an Airbus A310 crashed on its way to Hong Kong, after the pilot allowed his teenage son to fly the plane. The company worked with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to improve its safety record, and the crash rate declined. Nonetheless, on August 29, 1996, an Aeroflot plane carrying 140 passengers crashed in Norway.
Davies, R. E. G. Aeroflot, an Airline and its Aircraft: An Illustrated History of the World’s Largest Airline. Shrewsbury, U.K.: Airlife, 1992. A popular history for the general reader. Includes many illustrations and diagrams of the planes. Duffy, Paul. “Fighting Back.” Flight International 152, no. 4586 (August 6, 1997). An article in a professional magazine analyzing the problems of Aeroflot after the fall of Communism. Macdonald, Hugh. Aeroflot: Soviet Air Transport Since 1923. London: Putnam, 1975. An older but excellent history.
Federal Aviation Administration
Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev