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EgyptAir crash: Search for its lessons begins

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1999


The scene is eerily familiar: grim officials beginning the task of finding out why a plane-full of people has dropped into the ocean.

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This time it's a foreign carrier, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 with 214 people on their way from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Cairo.

Yet the crash carries tragic echoes of TWA Flight 800 and is already raising familiar questions about airline safety.

Fatal airline crashes remain a tiny fraction of the rapidly growing number of flights worldwide. But an accident of this magnitude inevitably produces a frantic search for causes and lessons. Though far too early to know what happened in this incident, questions are surfacing in several areas:

*Are foreign carriers as safe as domestic airlines?

*Was some form of terrorism involved?

*Is there some hidden peril with this particular Boeing model, or was this a freak accident?

Wreckage from the plane has been found 60 miles south of Massachusetts' Nantucket Island, and the US Coast Guard began looking for survivors and debris that may yield clues to the cause.

If the flight recorder or cockpit recorder is recovered, they might help determine what happened. Or authorities - as they did with the TWA flight 800 crash - might have to try to reconstruct part of the plane to look for other clues.

Safety record worldwide

The crash comes at a time when US airlines, with no fatalities last year, had a record year for safety. In fact, it was the first such year since commercial flight began.

But so far this year, an American Airlines jet crashed in Little Rock, Ark., killing 11 people. In addition, two high-profile private planes have gone down: last week's Learjet crash, which killed six people, including golfer Payne Stewart, and the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane this summer. But that's still fewer than the 54 people who died in 1997 and below the 340 people who died in 1996.

Overseas, the tally is far higher. In 1997, 679 people died in eight commercial accidents, with the vast majority of the fatalities occurring in Asia, a Boeing Co. study found.

Despite the greater number of foreign crashes, experts caution that it does not indicate that foreign airlines are less safe. Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, recently compared the safety record of developed nations with that of less developed countries.

"Third-world airlines held their own just as well as the first-world carriers. Under the circumstances, it would be unfortunate if people just jumped and said, 'You can't trust carriers like that,' " says Dr. Barnett.

For example, EgyptAir, the national carrier of Egypt, has had no fatalities in the past decade. It assigns its most senior pilots to its international routes.

Clint Oster, a transportation economist at Indiana University in Bloomington, points out that the safety record for the airline overseas is very good. "They've got the newest aircraft, the most senior and experienced pilots on these routes," he says.

But earlier this month, an EgyptAir flight between Istanbul and Cairo was hijacked. Although the incident ended peacefully, criticism arose around the issue of the airline's security.