NEW YORK — The scene is eerily familiar: grim officials beginning the task of finding out why a plane-full of people has dropped into the ocean.
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.
Mr. Oster at Indiana University says questions are bound to be raised because of the internal political turmoil in Egypt. "Was this an accident resulting from this political turmoil?" he asks.
While the Egyptian ambassador to the US said yesterday that Egypt is discounting terrorism as a likely cause, focusing instead on "catastrophic mechanical failure," the US Federal Aviation Administration last month warned all carriers that government agencies had received a letter threatening that a bomb would "soon be used" on a flight departing from Los Angeles or Kennedy in New York.
But federal agencies investigate many aviation warnings each month, and the Sept. 24 alert said: "At this time, FAA has no information to corroborate the statements in the letter and assess them as lacking credibility."
Airline experts say the 767 has a very good safety record. It's "been around a long time with a good operating record," says Morten Beyer, an airline-safety consultant based in McLean, Va. The plane is widely used, especially by long-distance carriers.
The only major incident involving Boeing 767s was in 1991, when a Air Lauda 767 crashed off Thailand. The cause of the accident was traced to an engine that, without command, reversed its thrust, ripping the plane apart.
"Boeing was certainly committed to working out a cure after that," says Barnett.
Sunday's crash occurred at a time when Boeing is coming under criticism for failing to hand over a report dealing with a heat buildup in center fuel tanks of its 747s. The center fuel tank was found to be the cause for the midair explosion of TWA 800 in July 1997, shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International.
That Boeing report, which was done 20 years ago, was sent to the government in June. According to The Washington Post on Saturday, a US government spokesman called the delay "unconscionable."
Boeing, however, noted that the report dealt with the military version of the plane, not the commercial version.
In the meantime, US officials will try to determine what happened to the EgyptAir flight.
Aaron Gellman, director of Northwestern University's Transportation Center in Chicago, says the last radar images of the plane may be telling.
"Did it disappear instantly, or did they see big pieces?" he asks. For example, after an Air India plane came down on its way from Toronto to India, it disappeared from the screen in a single radar sweep. That crash was the result of a bomb. But TWA Flight 800 showed up in several sweeps - the plane falling in pieces.
Experts speculate that some sudden kind of failure occurred, because there are no reports of communication between the pilots and ground controllers.
Although Sunday's accident occurred in relatively shallow water - 200 to 250 feet - it will be a difficult recovery because the debris is probably spread over a wide area.
*Staff writers Yvonne Zipp and Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Boston.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society