148 Die in Red Sea Plane Crash

January 5, 2004

A chartered Boeing 737 with 148 people on board crashed into the Red Sea shortly after taking off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik early Saturday morning. There were no survivors.

The plane, operated by Egyptian charter carrier Flash Airlines, was on a flight from the holiday resort to Paris via Cairo with 133 French tourists on board and a crew of 15. It is reported to have developed engine trouble shortly after take off, and was attempting to return to the airport when it crashed into the Red Sea. French and Egyptian authorities have indicated that an engine malfunction on takeoff was the probable cause of the crash.

However, a man from a previously unknown group, told Agence France Presse (AFP) in a telephone conversation that they were responsible for destroying the aircraft. The man, who was described as speaking Arabic with a strong Egyptian accent, said the terrorist attack was in response to the French government’s plans to ban overt religious symbols in the country’s public schools, a measure which primarily affects the wearing of head scraves by female Muslin students.

An attempt is being made to recover the “black-box” flight recorders, but investigators have indicated that this may be extremely difficult as the wreckage lies at an extreme depth, around 1000 meters (3300 feet). France has sent a robot submarine and a team of experts to the site to assist in the recovery. French naval vessels are also helping local authorities gather the remains of victims and surface debris.

Conflicting reports have surfaced concerning the reliability of the aircraft flown by Cairo-based Flash. Swiss authorities said they had banned the airline from flying over Swiss airspace as they considered it “a danger to aviation security.” In at least two cases flights operated by the charter carrier were forced to make emergency landings – one in Athens when an engine caught fire, and another in Geneva due to bad weather.

Spokesman for the airline said the Swiss ban was not due to any safety concerns, but to a dispute over tax payments and related fees. French commentators were quick to cite “lax regulation and inspection” of charter airlines as a contributing cause of the crash, but a spokesman from the country’s aviation ministry told France Info, the local news radio station, that Flash’s planes had been recently inspected and only minor problems had been found. The airline had clear authority to operate in France, and had in fact been chartered by a local tour operator.

The crash nevertheless focuses renewed attention on the risks for the aviation insurance industry concerning charter carriers, especially those from “non-Western” countries. Rightly or wrongly the aircraft operated by such companies are generally perceived to carry higher risks than standard air carriers.

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