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Russian plane crash highlights concern about Soviet-era jets

A Russian plane crash killed 44 of 52 aboard a Tu-134 today. While the age of the plane was questioned, some experts also point to need for better training and maintenance at smaller carriers.

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Emergency workers and investigators search a wreckage of Tu-134 plane, belonging to the RusAir airline, near the city of Petrozavodsk on Tuesday, June 21, 2011.The passenger jet crashed in heavy fog and burst into flames late Monday on a highway in northwestern Russia, just short of a runway whose fog lights had failed, killing 44 people, officials said. Eight people survived the crash.

Timur Khanov/Komsomolskaya Pravda/AP

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A fatal plane crash in western Russia has once again focused attention on the country's fleet of Soviet-built Tupolev jets, which do not meet international standards but are still flown by many regional airlines.

Russian aviation officials blamed pilot error for the accident, which killed 44 people – including eight foreigners.

The Tu-134 and its big sister, the Tu-154, were the main workhorses of Soviet aviation, which used to transport about 120 million passengers annually; twice Russia's current traffic. The country's main carrier, Aeroflot, retired all its Tupolev planes in 2009, but about 230 of each type remain in use with smaller airlines serving far-flung Russian communities and airlines of former Soviet republics.

Though notoriously cramped and uncomfortable, the planes until recently enjoyed safety records comparable to many similar Western-built aircraft. According to SOAR, a private company that teaches clients to overcome the fear of flying, both the Tu-134 and the Tu-154 have suffered about one crash per million hours of flying, or roughly the same rate as the Douglas DC-9 and Airbus 310.

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