Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 16:40 UK

Aeroflot plots a new path

Russian airline Aeroflot was once the poster child for the nation's engineering prowess. But as the BBC's Richard Galpin reports, the airline is turning away from Russian-made planes at a potentially huge cost to the nation's manufacturing industry.

Aeroflot Tupolev pictured in 1950s
The Soviets made Aeroflot into a national icon

The iconic Soviet-era Tupolevs and Ilyushins, previously the pride of the country's aircraft manufacturing industry, have become so outdated that Aeroflot is now buying the vast majority of its planes from Boeing and Airbus.

"We are sad to some extent to say goodbye to the Tupolev 154s," says Vitaly Savelyev, Aeroflot's chief executive officer.

"But its time is now gone. The Tupolevs use so much fuel that they're not economic to operate."

It is estimated they consume almost 50% more fuel than their Airbus equivalent.

Designed in the 1960s, they are also noisy and uncomfortable with famously floppy seats.

If you are unlucky enough to be allocated the seats placed in two strange alcoves at the back of the plane, it feels and smells like you are actually sitting in the toilet.

A tour of the cockpit of a Tupolev 154 reveals a dense cluster of clunky knobs and glass dials surrounding two battered seats and a yoke (or joystick) of which the World War I fighter ace the Red Baron would have been proud.

Industry on the brink

Aeroflot is aiming to become one of the world's leading airlines and can no longer afford to fly such museum pieces.

The whole company is about to go through a radical restructuring which will see 6,000 jobs axed over the next two or three years.

Inside a Tupolev

It also says it is improving the in-flight catering and entertainment services and planning to introduce new uniforms for its flight attendants this autumn.

But by turning its back on Russian-built planes in the name of modernisation, Aeroflot may have sounded the death-knell for the country's aircraft-manufacturing industry - which is already struggling to stay alive.

The conglomerate of state-owned firms still making civilian planes was bitterly criticised by the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently.

It has debts estimated at 95bn roubles ($3bn; £1.8bn) and is being kept afloat thanks to massive government subsidies.

"We are of course going to support the aviation industry," Mr Putin said.

"But this is not a justification for negligence - quite simply for bad work. Plans for the manufacture of planes are not being implemented."

Glimmer of hope

The factories are trying to produce more modern ranges of planes.

There are for example new Tupolevs.

Tupolevs are far greedier for fuel than other planes

But none of the airlines here really want to buy them as they are not comparable with Western planes.

Delivery dates are also extremely unreliable. Last year the entire industry delivered seven airliners when the total number ordered was just 13.

"It is true that the planes we are making here are out of date; and we only sell a handful of them," says Viktor Kuznetsov, deputy director of Aviastar, which manufactures the Tupolev 204.

"But we have to keep going. Just think what would happen if Boeing and Airbus stopped selling to Russia. This is why our industry is strategically important for the state and will survive."

For all the gloom there is still one glimmer of hope for Russian's aviation industry.

It is a new regional airliner called the Superjet which went on public display for the first time at the Moscow air show last month.

Sleak and modern, it has received quite good reviews from the experts.

It was built by Sukhoi but with significant assistance from Boeing.

Perhaps under pressure from the government, Aeroflot has placed an order for 30 of these planes to ensure it does have a Russian element in its fleet.

But it is not clear when the first planes will be delivered.

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