The Yemenia Airways jet that crashed into the Indian Ocean off the island of Le Grande Comore early today, with 153 people on board, had previously been "banned" from France after an inspection in 2007 by French technicians found the aircraft to have "numerous defects," according to Dominique Bussereau, France's minister of transportation.
The statement highlighted an early theme here after the Airbus A310-300, built in 1990, went down after a second attempt to land in the Comoros capital of Moroni: the lower standards and poor quality of aircraft that immigrant and ethnic populations living in Europe say they must endure.
The flight began in Paris aboard an Airbus A330, but passengers eventually changed planes. The flight stopped in Marseilles – a center of ethnic Comorians in France – then flew to Yemen's capital, Sana'a. There, passengers switched to the older A310 for a flight to Djibouti and then a hop to the island nation of Comoros, an archipelago off Madagascar and a former French colony.
'Trashy' planes for non-European flights?
Comorians, including Ali Mohammed of the Federation of Comorians in Marseilles, have long accused airlines of using new, well-maintained planes for flights between the Middle East and France, but then switching to older planes not maintained to European standards – aircraft that would not be allowed to land here.
"We saw this might happen. We are put in trashy planes that do not meet the norms," said Farid Soilihi, president of SOS-Voyages for Comorians, a Marseilles lobby for safer travel conditions. "We aren't listened to, even in Comoros. The airlines we fly on don't meet regulations. People are heaped on board like animals, schedules aren't kept, there are always technical problems."
Citing safety concerns, the European Union in 2006 banned 92 airlines, mostly from Africa, from landing at EU airports. Today, with the backdrop of a downed A310 with just one young survivor, and charges of a two-tiered system of safety, the European commissioner for transportation, Antonio Tajani, called for a so-called "black list" to be enforced globally. Mr. Tajani said he would propose the action shortly at the International Civil Aviation Organization in Brussels.
Airline closes its offices
Yemenia Airways is widely used by Comorians because it allows for 88 pounds of luggage, compared with the 44 pounds permitted by most other carriers. Yesterday's itinerary was Paris-Marseille-Sanaa-Djibouti-Moroni. The Yemenia flight was approaching the airport at Moroni when contact was lost at 1:51 a.m. local time.
Today at Agence Yemenia, the airline office in Paris, and at the Yemenia air desk in Marseilles, crowds of ethnic Comorians expressed outrage when airline officials closed their counters and sent staff home following the crash.
"It's totally irresponsible, it's irresponsible," said one young man, complaining on French television.
Disputed claims of bad weather
Many Comorians live in the 3rd district of Marseilles; among them is "Soprano," a famous French rap artist. They often head to their homeland toward the end of June, as schools start to close.
On Tuesday, French authorities said the causes for the crash continue to be "blurry." Airbus officials have expressed sorrow, but added that they had no clues to the cause of the crash and probably won't know more until the black box is recovered.
Inclement weather, an early theory on the cause for the crash, is being disputed. The control tower in Moroni claims the plane went down in stormy weather and rough seas. But an engineer and meteorologist interviewed by French television claimed the winds were at 20 knots, with gusts.