Planning decisions critical to the development of Aeroflot Russian International Airlines (Aria) are on hold following a Kremlin-instigated clearout of the carrier's boardroom which has placed the flag more firmly under political control.

Only one member of the previous board of directors, chairman Gennady N Zaitsev, has survived the axe in a move which saw the former Soviet airforce chief Air Marshall Evgeny I Shaposhnikov take over as director general from incumbent Dr Vladimir M Tikhonov in November.

The former director general has apparently fallen out of favour with his political masters. Amid allegations of financial mismanagement and irregularities, the government has issued a decree barring Tikhonov from holding any positions with Aria or its associated companies.

Aria's director of information Vladimir I Masenkov says Russian president Boris Yeltsin is taking a close and personal interest in the carrier's development and is determined it will remain the country's national flag despite the emergence of new rivals, including fast growing international operator, Transaero.

In language reminiscent of the Soviet era, Masenkov explains the changes are designed to involve more politicians in the decision-making process at Aria and describes the new board as a 'state committee,' adding that the board of directors 'has been abolished.' This has caused consternation among analysts because under the rules setting up Aria as a joint stock company it must have a board - a position to be clarified at the AGM.

The president of the new committee is Sergoei Beliayev, chairman of the government's Committee of State Property, while former chairman Zaitsev joins the committee as representative of the State Department of Aviation.

The appointment of Shaposhnikov, along with other high ranking bureaucrats, to the airline management is seen as a signal from Yeltsin to hard-line nationalists that Aria will remain firmly under government control as a flag carrier. But the changes have dismayed local analysts, who say the appointments represent a backwards step at a time Aria needs strong commercial rather than political leadership. They say morale is extremely low and decisions are needed on systems and fleet modernisation. Zaitsev is now the only 'board' member with any real experience of airline operations.

No financial figures are available for 1995 but analysts believe the carrier is struggling to remain profitable and has no cash to modernise its 116-strong fleet, the bulk of which remains older Russian-built Tupolev and Ilyushin jets. The carrier operates two B767s and six Airbus A310s but wants to add more western jets, including longer haul aircraft.

Tom Ballantyne

Source: Airline Business