- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s transport oversight agency on Sunday ordered the country’s airlines to stop using Tu-154B planes until the cause of a passenger-jet fire and explosion that killed three people is determined.

A spokesman for the agency, Sergei Romanchev, said airlines must obey the order. It was not immediately clear how many of the planes are in service in Russia.

The Tu-154B is one variant of the Tu-154 model, which has been in service since the early 1970s and has been in wide use on Russian internal flights and extensively in other countries, including Iran and former Soviet republics.

No cause has been determined for Saturday’s fire, which also injured 43 people. The fire began as the plane carrying 124 people taxied for takeoff at the airport in Surgut in western Siberia, about 1,350 miles east of Moscow. Frightened passengers clawed their way through the smoke-filled cabin, and most managed to escape before the explosion.

Investigators have found the plane’s flight recorders and taken fuel samples and documents from the regional airline, Kogalymavia, that used the plane.

The Tu-154, similar to the Boeing 727, has three engines mounted on the rear of the plane. The midrange plane is noted for its ability to operate on gravel and unpaved airfields. However, noise regulations eventually stopped Tu-154s from flying to most of Europe. Russian flag carrier Aeroflot took the plane out of service in December 2009.

Tu-154s have been involved in more than 30 fatal incidents over their long history, but many of them were attributed to pilot error, poor maintenance or irresponsible operation.

In December, a Tu-154 operated by Russia’s Dagestan Airlines made an emergency landing in Moscow after two of its three engines failed. The third engine cut out just before the landing, and the plane skidded off the snowy runway at Domodedovo Airport, killing two people.

Also Sunday, Kogalymavia announced that it would pay the affected passengers in Saturday’s accident 20,000 rubles ($650) each in compensation.

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