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Russia grounds about 200 planes, cutting off distant regions

Amid safety concerns about Russia's aging fleet of airplanes, the Kremlin has decided to ground two Soviet-era models, a move that will curtail service to more distant parts of the country.

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Russia's airline industry has been thrown into confusion by a presidential decision to permanently ground two Soviet-era workhorses, the Tupolev Tu-134 and the Antonov An-24, by year's end. The two planes are the backbone of the far-flung country's regional aviation.

Aviation experts say the ban, imposed in response to a recent spate of fatal accidents with the planes, could leave hundreds of small communities effectively cut-off from the world. The planes handle the bulk of airline traffic in Siberia and Russia's far east.

"I see this as a populist decision, made by the authorities in an effort to show the public they're concerned about flight safety," says Oleg Panteleyev, an expert with the online aviation journal Aviaport.ru. "But these planes are the basis of our regional aviation, and airlines cannot afford to replace them, or bring them up to new standards, on such short notice."

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the measure Wednesday, saying that the planes must either be grounded or re-equipped with expensive safety equipment, including mid-air and ground collision avoidance systems that cost almost as much as the planes are worth.

Last month a Tu-134 jetliner missed the runway at Petrozavodsk in western Russia and crashed, killing 47 of the 52 people aboard and reviving a long-running debate over the large numbers of obsolete Soviet-era planes still flying in Russia. An investigation blamed pilot error for the accident.

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