Egypt crash firm under scrutiny
 Updated: Sunday, 4 January, 2004, 20:15 GMT


A controversy has arisen over the safety record of an Egyptian airline whose Boeing 737 crashed on Saturday killing all 148 people on board.

 Flash Airlines had been banned from flying to Switzerland after failing safety checks in October 2002.

Recovery workers taking out personal items

The recovery work is going to take a long time

 And one of the firm's two planes made an emergency landing in Athens around the same time, it has emerged.

France, which lost 133 people, said it was unaware of the Swiss ban. It has blamed power failure for the crash.

Egypt says evidence points to technical failure as the cause of the airliner's plunge into the Red Sea - even though it is not known whether the plane was the one checked in Switzerland.

The hunt for bodies continued on Sunday as Egyptian police closed off waters around the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where the plane came down.

The wreckage, including the plane's two flight recorders, is thought to lie at least 1,000 metres beneath the surface.

The French Government has sent special equipment, including a robot submarine, to help the Egyptian recovery operation.

A team of DNA experts to help identify bodies is also going to Egypt.

'Insufficient response'

"During an inspection we discovered that the airline was a danger to aviation security," said Celestine Perissinotto, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation.

The failings were sufficient to warrant an immediate ban, she said.

"If a company is forbidden [to fly over national airspace]... that means the problems are serious."

Ms Perissinotto said that their report on Flash Airlines had been given to the Egyptian authorities but "since then we have had no reaction".

A Flash Airlines plane on its way to Paris was allowed to make an emergency landing in Geneva last year despite the Swiss ban, apparently because of bad weather.

The Swiss authorities demanded a full explanation of this incident from the airline but say the answer they received was "insufficient".

Disturbing amateur video footage has also surfaced, shot by a passenger on a Flash Airlines Boeing forced to make another emergency landing, this time in Athens, the BBC's Paul Wood reports from Cairo.

There has been no comment from the company, but the Egyptian Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq has dismissed the Swiss allegations.


Private Egyptian charter airline

Operates two Boeing 737-300s - both manufactured in 1993

Planes equipped with the latest navigational instruments, company says

Pilots have minimum of 5,000 hours flying time, company says

French Deputy Foreign Minister Renaud Muselier preparing to throw a bouquet of flowers
Working in Sharm el-Sheikh, we are all shocked by this accident

Tom Lund, Egypt/Norway

"If they have any proof, they have to submit it," he said.

The Swiss spokeswoman said other European countries, including France, had been informed of the Swiss findings.

But civil aviation authorities in France say they did not know that Flash Airlines had been banned from Swiss air space.

Flash Airlines has said the aircraft was only 10 years old, was regularly serviced in Norway, and captained by a pilot with more than 5,000 hours of flying experience.

There was no distress call from the plane to the control tower.

Angry relatives

France has sent a minister to oversee the repatriation of the bodies that are brought to the surface.

Whole families are said to have perished, and many children are among the dead.

Sharm el-Sheikh's hospital is the focus of anger as relatives of the aircraft's Egyptian crew demand to see the remains of their loved ones.

There were 135 passengers - 133 French, one Moroccan and one Japanese - and 13 Egyptian crew members on the flight, which was on its way to Cairo for a stopover and crew change before heading on to Paris

The crash came amid increased alerts about possible terrorist threats that have led to tightened security and cancelled flights around the world.

Sharm el-Sheikh is a popular Red Sea tourist resort that also often hosts political and economic summits.

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Questions Raised on Egypt Airline's Safety

Sunday January 4, 2004 9:16 PM


Associated Press Writer

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) - Questions were raised Sunday about a charter airline's safety standards after one of its planes crashed into the Red Sea, killing 148 people. Swiss authorities said they banned Flash Airlines 14 months ago after it flunked an inspection and an Italian passenger recalled a flight when an engine burst into flames.

The head of the airline said the aircraft had been in good condition before the crash. Officials suspect mechanical failure.

``I am 100 percent sure that the plane was fit for flying,'' Mohamed Nour, chairman of Flash Airlines, told The Associated Press on Sunday. ``Accidents happen. We are sorry for the losses of life but we shouldn't jump into speculation.''

Search crews on military and civilian vessels continued efforts to recover bodies, the flight data recorder and the fuselage.

The extreme depth of the wreckage, believed to be resting in 2,600 feet of water, was hampered recovery, and only small plane pieces and body parts from the shark-infested waters near the resort had been found.

France dispatched three aircraft with 50 experts, a military surveillance plane, a naval frigate, 16 scuba divers and a robot submarine to help. Of the 148 passengers who died, there were 133 French tourists, a Japanese, a Moroccan and 13 Egyptian crew members.

French Deputy Foreign Minister Renaud Muselier told reporters there was nothing to suggest that terrorism was the cause of Saturday's crash of Flash Airlines Flight FSH604, which had just taken off from Sharm el-Sheik on its way to Paris when it crashed.

French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said indications suggest the plane suffered ``simply a loss of power.''

Egyptian officials have said preliminary information indicates the crash was caused by a mechanical problem. Radar images showed the plane turned left as normal after takeoff, straightened out and then turned right before plunging into the sea.

Several tourists and witnesses interviewed by AP said they did not hear any explosions before the crash.

Egypt has said the Flash Airlines jet, an 11-year-old Boeing 737, had checked out fine before the flight.

Swiss officials said Sunday that technical problems forced them to ban the Egyptian company's planes from landing in Switzerland.

``A series of safety shortcomings showed up in a plane of Flash Airlines during a routine security check at Zurich Airport in October 2002,'' Celestine Perissinotto, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation, told AP.

Egyptian Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafeeq called the Swiss charge ``baseless.'' French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien also cast doubt on the claim, saying he understood ``it was more for economic reasons that this company did not fly over Switzerland.''

``I call for extreme caution with this type of announcement that adds emotion for families who certainly don't need it at the moment,'' the French minister said on Europe-1 radio.

Perissinotto said the Swiss report had been given to Egyptian civil aviation authorities. ``Since then we have had no reaction,'' Perissinotto said.

Nour, Flash's chairman, confirmed the Swiss had stopped flights but said the airline made the necessary maintenance and was inspected again.

``After that we were allowed to fly again, with Swiss citizens on board,'' he said, adding that the airline made one more flight to Switzerland the next week, and then the contract ended.

Nour confirmed Italian press reports that a Flash plane caught fire while flying over Greece the same month as the Zurich airport inspection. Italian tourists recalled seeing flames coming out of the starboard engine on a flight from Sharm el-Sheik to Bologna, Italy, on Oct. 27, 2002. The plane landed at Athens airport with fire engines alongside the runway.

``To say that the plane was decrepit would be a compliment,'' passenger Eugenio Gedda told Italian state television Sunday.

Flash Airlines' chief pilot Hassan Mounir could not say if the fire occurred on the same plane that crashed Saturday, but said such incidents aren't unusual. ``It's normal,'' he said. ``You can have an engine fire in flight.''

Flash Airlines, which has been in business six years, operated two Boeing 737s.

Asked whether the fire and Zurich inspection raised questions about the standard of maintenance at Flash Airlines, Mounir replied: ``No, our planes are very well maintained.''

Flash Airlines' remaining plane, also an 11-year-old Boeing 737, flew tourists from France to Cairo Sunday, according to airport officials. It was not clear how many passengers were on board.

Muselier told reporters in Sharm el-Sheik that about 60 ``portions of bodies'' had been retrieved, but that the remains were so badly mangled that it would be difficult to identify them.

In a solemn, brief ceremony out at sea, the dead were bid a final farewell. French, Egyptian and Japanese officials led a convoy of three tourist ferries filled with journalists to the site where the plane went down.

There, they held three bouquets, wrapped at the stem with the French, Egyptian and Japanese flags, upside down and let them slip into the water, as helicopters flew overhead.

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