Egyptian crash spotlights air-charter safety record

Searchers located a Flash jet data recorder Tuesday, but it was too deep in the Red Sea to be immediately retrieved.

A row has broken out over the safety record of the Egyptian airliner that crashed near Sharm el-Sheikh Saturday, killing all 148 people aboard, in the wake of revelations that the plane had been banned from landing in Switzerland for safety reasons.

French officials are insisting they did not ignore a Swiss warning in October 2002 about aircraft operated by the Egyptian company Flash Airlines, and that three subsequent checks of the planes at French airports gave them a clean bill of health.

Of the victims of the Boeing 737 crash on Saturday, 133 were French tourists, returning from a New Year's holiday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort.

As accusations of negligence flew, airline-industry analysts pointed out that air travel is actually getting safer. Last year was one of the least deadly years in modern aviation history, with 1,204 people dying in 161 accidents, according to the Bureau of Aviation Accident Archives, a private research group in Switzerland.

"The trend is going down," says Ronan Hubert, who founded the organization. "Safety is improving, there are more and more inspections, aircraft are younger than they used to be, and pilots are better trained."

In the waters off Sharm el-Sheikh, French Navy searchers have located one of the jet's two "black box" flight recorders, which contain clues about the reason for Saturday's crash. But Rear Adm. Jacques Mazars told reporters that more advanced equipment must be brought in to retrieve the box, which was believed to be 1,970 to 2,620 feet below the sea's surface.

The worst crash in French history has focused attention on the low-cost charter airlines that fly millions of European holidaymakers every year to destinations all over the world.

Tour operators say that the charter companies save money, enabling them to offer the lowest fares in the sky, by filling their planes, not by cutting safety corners. Their aircraft "are subject to the same international regulations, and to the same sort of surprise inspections, as airplanes owned by regular carriers," points out Mr. Hubert.

At the same time, planes owned by charter companies do crash much more often than those operated by standard airlines, relative to the number of miles they fly. "Charter flights have a risk potential 15 times higher than normal carriers," says Mr. Hubert. "They do pose a greater risk, even if it is only statistical," he adds, and even if 80 percent of aircraft crashes are due to pilot error, rather than to mechanical failure.

The responsibility for ensuring airplane safety lies with the national authorities of an aviation company's home country. A recent report by the International Civil Aviation Organization gave Egypt high marks for maintaining standards, and French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said Monday that Flash Airlines had "a good reputation."

The Swiss aviation authority, however, said Monday that its inspectors had found "grave shortcomings" in both of the company's planes during spot checks in April and October 2002. They noted "a lack of on-board navigation documents" and "obvious lack of maintenance in the landing equipment, the engines, and flight controls," the authority said in a statement. The Swiss say they banned Flash from landing at their airports, and informed their European neighbors of this decision, as part of a voluntary Europewide air-safety information system.

The European Union is close to adopting tough new regulations that will force member governments to check any plane that has been found faulty in the past by another country's inspectors, according to Gilles Gantelet, spokesman for the European Commission. "We want to see real European cooperation that will mean that any aircraft considered dangerous can be grounded, forbidden to fly in European airspace," he told French radio on Tuesday. "We would like a European decision that would extend one country's ban to the whole of the Union," he added. These regulations, which have been under discussion for the past six years, would make such an accident (as occurred last Saturday) "much more improbable," he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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