Kazan, Russia
Ambulances are seen outside the main building of Kazan airport November 17, 2013. A Boeing 737-500 airliner crashed on landing in the Russian city of Kazan on Sunday, killing all 50 on board and highlighting the poor safety record of Russian airlines that ply internal routes across the world's largest nation. Reuters

A Tatarstan Airlines Boeing 737 crashed at an airport in Russia Sunday, killing all 50 people on board, according to Russian officials. Flight U363 out of Moscow attempted to land in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, but exploded on impact at around 7:20 p.m. local time.

The Emergencies Ministry said those on board when the plane hit the runway included 44 passengers and six crewmembers. Among the dead were two small children, the regional head of the FSB intelligence service, Aleksander Antonov, and the president of the Republic of Tatarstan’s son, Irek Minnikhanov, according to a passenger list posted on the Tatarstan Airlines website.

The Emergencies Ministry said the pilot on Flight U363 out of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport was making his second attempt to land and may have tried to abort landing just before the deadly crash. Eyewitnesses described seeing the Boeing 737 rapidly loose altitude before hitting the runway and exploding in a ball of fire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a special government commission to investigate the cause of the crash, according to the Interfax news agency. Investigators are looking into whether a technical failure or crew error was to blame, but will also check if low quality fuel or poor weather conditions could have been contributing factors, Interfax reported.

Weather at the time of the crash was cloudy with light precipitation and mild winds. Temperatures in the Muslim-majority, oil-rich city of Kazan hovered just above zero.

Kazan International Airport, which lies about 720 kilometers (450 miles) east of Moscow, is expected to remain closed until Monday afternoon. It receives about 1.5 million passengers each year, many of whom fly in and out on Tatarstan Airlines. The carrier has its head office on airport property, and operates flights to 15 destinations in Russia, Asia and Europe.

Russia’s Poor Aviation Safety Record

Before Sunday’s incident in Kazan, there was a glimmer of hope that Russia’s aviation industry was on the mend. The Federal Air Transport Agency, Rosaviatsia, said in a March report that the nation’s safety record had improved to six fatal accidents last year, down from 10 in 2011. The number of fatalities was also lower at 58, down from 119 in 2011, while the number of non-fatal accidents decreased from eight in 2011 to seven in 2012.

Yet, analysts said Sunday’s crash was indicative of Russia’s poor overall record on aviation safety -- one of the worst in the world. The most recent in a string of deadly crashes happened last December when a plane careened off a runway in Moscow and slammed into a nearby highway, killing five and severely injuring four others.

Meanwhile, 31 of the 43 people aboard a UTair ATR 72-200 aircraft were killed last April when the plane crashed shortly after take-off from a Siberian airport. That crash came just a few months after a widely publicized accident in September 2011, when a Yakovlev Yak-42 passenger jet burst into flames near the Russian city of Yaroslavl carrying 44 people, including members of a major league ice hokey team.

Of primary concern in most of these accidents was Russia’s aging domestic fleet. London-based aviation analysts Ascend Worldwide put the average age of Russia’s domestic single-aisle aircraft between 25 and 30 years (the plane involved in Sunday’s accident was 23 years old). The U.S. domestic fleet, by comparison, averages around 13 years.

For decades, lethal crashes have not only marred Russia's reputation, but also left the country unable to sell its own aircraft outside of Iran, Cuba, parts of Africa and the former Soviet Union. A multibillion-dollar initiative by the government and Sukhoi to market the Superjet 100 to Asian buyers ended in disaster last May when a test flight crashed into a volcano in West Java carrying 45 passengers and crew.