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No Fuel--Soviet Airliners Grounded at 92 Airports

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Across the country, would-be travelers arrived at airports Thursday only to find that no planes would be flying . . . anywhere.

Nearly one-third of the country’s 350 airports were shut and dozens more were expected to close down soon, according to officials at the Soviet Civil Aviation Ministry.

It may be the hallmark of the tumultuous situation in the country--political triumphs are quickly overshadowed by economic disasters.

The announcement of Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin’s triumph in forging the Commonwealth of Independent States was followed within minutes by a report from the official Tass news agency that 92 airports had stopped operations because of lack of fuel and that 38 more were using up their last gallons.

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Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Soviet Far East and the Caucasus region were all affected, and the chain reaction is likely to spread across the nation.

“We are torturing both our passengers and ourselves,” said Andrei K. Andreyev, head of the Air Traffic Control Directorate at the Civil Aviation Ministry. “Only 60% of our flights are on schedule, and it gets worse.”

Air travel plays a unique role in the country that covers one-sixth of the globe. Last year, Aeroflot, the country’s only airline and the world’s biggest, carried 140 million passengers on domestic and foreign flights.

As the economy unravels, transport becomes less reliable.

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“What is really surprising is not that a hundred or so airports have shut down but that the remaining 250 still operate,” said Alexei A. Sergeyev, a well-known economist.

“The economic collapse proceeds at the breakneck speed, and I quite agree . . . that the entire economy and its lifelines, the transportation links, will fold down by January.”

More and more frequently, passengers are taking the problem into their own hands. Dozens of times, exasperated passengers have tried to seize aircraft on the taxiing lanes and have sometimes succeeded in diverting them to their particular destinations. The last such seizure occurred in Ekaterinburg on Tuesday, and even a militia squad could not dislodge the enraged people from the airliner they had stormed, insisting on their right to fly to the Crimea.

The usual answer to such actions up to now was to yield to the passengers, avoiding a bigger confrontation. But now, there are simply no flights to divert.

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The traditional solution, sending people to their destinations by rail, is also no longer working. Two weeks ago, the Soviet railway company announced it was halting dealings abroad because it lacks foreign, convertible currency to pay its numerous partners. Its domestic operations are also grinding to a halt.

The reason for the fuel shortage is more complicated than it might seem at first.

As the manager of an oil refinery in eastern Russia explained Thursday in a TV interview, his plant is “awash’ in gasoline and aviation fuel. But there are no tank cars to transport it to the consumers.

There are also political reasons for transportation problems. Azerbaijanis have blocked the railway to Armenia; women in a Russian enclave in Moldova stage sit-ins on the tracks leading to the Moldovan capital, and angry farmers threaten to cut the vital trans-Siberian railroad if their economic demands are not met.

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Fuel blockades have also resulted from conflicts between the republics.

The heart of the problem is that the transportation network is still centralized, and it is difficult to keep it going when most of the republics are spinning off in their own directions.


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