Aviation Security in Russia: 40 years of evolution

by Eleena Yegorova Security Manager, International Affairs at Aeroflot Russian Airlines

12 July 2013 was a special day in the history of Russian aviation security; it marked exactly 40 years since the birth of the Russian aviation security system, when the Security Department of the Civil Aviation Ministry of the USSR was created. Eleena Yegorova takes us through the development of aviation security in Russia, from its inception in 1973 to the present day.

As is often the case in the world of aviation security, even the issuance of Executive Order № 1414, which created the Security Department was a reactive measure; the statistics for acts of unlawful interference against civil aviation (see Figure 1) in Russia illustrate a number of pre-1973 incidents. Indeed, the very first attempt to hijack an aircraft was on 25 October 1958 when two criminals at a tiny airport in Cherskiy – a town in Yakutia – attempted to seize an Antonov 2 aircraft. Between 1958 and 1970 there were a few other attempts, yet no one actually succeeded in hijacking an aircraft.

Everything changed on 15 October 1970 with the first successful hijacking of a Soviet commercial flight. 19 year old cabin attendant Nadezhda Kourchenko was killed, and two crew members and one passenger were wounded, by father and son Pranas and Algirdas Brazauskas, Lithuanian nationals, who diverted Aeroflot flight 244, en-route from Batumi in Georgia to Sukhumi in Abkhaz, to Turkey with 46 passengers on board. The young stewardess did her best to stop the hijackers and was posthumously awarded with one of the highest military honours – the Order of the Red Banner. Thousands of ordinary people also paid their respects to her by sending their condolences to her mother via mail and telegraph.

Like elsewhere in the world, the creation of a specialist department to counter the threat to civil aviation was never going to guarantee secure skies. Indeed, on 18 November 1983, 7 people were killed as a result of the attempted hijacking of Aeroflot flight 6833 en route from Tbilisi to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

The death toll was greater still on 8 March 1988 when 9 people lost their lives. Whilst 5 of those were hijackers (members of the Ovechkins family, consisting of a mother and her 10 sons), 3 were passengers and one was flight attendant Tamara Zharkaya. 36 other passengers were wounded and the whole Tupolev-154 aircraft was destroyed as a result of the hijacking whilst en route from Irkutsk to Leningrad. Zharkaya was also posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

But the real increase in the number of hijackings happened in the transition between the Soviet and modern period of Russian history; from 9 June to 30 December 1990 there were nine successful hijackings and 23 attempts; two hijackings and 11 attempts took place in 1991; two hijackings and four attempts in 1992; and two hijackings and two attempts in 1993. Fortunately none of these incidents caused as many victims as the three aforementioned hijackings between 1970 and 1988. Nevertheless, mainly as a result of these statistics, in 1994 the Russian government issued its historical Directive № 897 ‘On Federal System of Safeguarding Civil Aviation against Acts of Unlawful Interference’. Regardless of its age, this document is still sufficiently robust enough to act as the basic state regulation for aviation security in Russia. It was developed by the relevant specialists of the new Civil Aviation Authority of the country; in 1991, the Ministry of Transportation had inherited aviation security responsibilities from the Ministry of Civil Aviation of the USSR.

Valeriy N. Saleyev headed the Russian aviation security system from 1993 until 2000. Under his leadership, key principles, if not the entire philosophy of the system, were set out. These were not just in Directive № 897, but also in the 1997 Air Code of the Russian Federation. Unlike the Air Code of the USSR, a special chapter – Chapter XII – was totally dedicated to aviation security issues. Those principles included all previous experience of counter-terrorism activity in Russia, starting with standard airport access control protocols and featuring the same strict aircraft security measures as the previous Soviet requirements. Long before 11 September 2001, all cockpit doors of Russian-made aircraft were bulletproof and pilots were strictly prohibited from opening the doors inflight.

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