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July 01, 2009

The Two Faces of Yemenia

by Clive Irving

Residents of the Comoros Islands are accusing Yemenia Airways of double standards.

They say that for months they have been protesting the poor condition of the Airbus A310 used as a link between the islands and the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, the principal route from their remote Indian Ocean home to France, where many Comorans live.

Flights from Paris to Sana'a are flown by much more modern A330s and, apparently, are well enough maintained to pass French inspections. French authorities say that the A310 involved in Monday's crash, which killed 152 people, was banned from French air space several years ago because of its poor condition.

Today a large number of Comorans refused to board a Yemenia airplane in Paris, protesting the risks involved in changing planes in Sana'a.

The French also reported today finding at least one of the flight data recorders from the A310. This should, at least, show whether there was a technical failure in the plane or whether it was a case of pilot error.

There are precursors to this accident from the 1990s. The Yemenia A310 was making its second attempt to land in bad weather when it went down. Three crashes, all in Asia, from the 1990s involving two A300s and one A310 (essentially the same planes with different sized cabins), killed a total of 462 people.

In each case, pilots mishandled landings. In the last of these, in December 1998, a Thai Airways A310 flying from Bangkok to the provincial capital of Surat Thani crashed while making its third attempted approach in low clouds and driving rain--conditions not dissimilar to those the Yemeni A310 encountered. One hundred and two of the 146 people aboard died, including the two pilots. 

In all of these accidents the Airbuses were in a sharp, nose-up stall when the pilots lost control.

It was to make this kind of pilot error impossible that Airbus developed its next generation of fully automated cockpits. With this technology they applied the principle of what is called a "protected" system. If pilots attempted to fly the airplane out of its controllable attitudes, as in a sharp nose-up stall, the computers would not allow it and they would, instead, keep the airplane stable as it made its approach, whatever the challenges. And so it proved: The number of accidents in which airliners flew into the ground on approach markedly declined.

Ironically, this is the same automation system that is now suspected of having a role in the crash of Air France Flight 447, due to faulty gauges rather than the system itself, and at cruise altitude, not on approach.

The Yemeni A310 was 19 years old. Properly maintained, this would not have been an unsafe airplane, although it was lacking the more sophisticated flight controls. As I reported yesterday, Yemenia was on the European Union's watch list, a candidate for its blacklist that includes more than 160 airlines worldwide (pdf). The Comoros crash exposes the serious loophole in that regime, what happens when you switch airplanes after a long-distance flight. Some reports from people who had flown earlier in the A310 that crashed talk of it being as decrepit as a cattle car.

So the moral is: If you are making a long distance flight on a reputable carrier but are connecting to a smaller airline, check that airline. For example, if you are bound for Bangkok, make sure you are not booked on OneTwoGo--it's on the European blacklist. And if you are bound for Jakarta, Indonesia, don't fly on any home-based carrier. All 50 of them are on the list.

Further reading:
* Banned from Europe (pdf)
* Timeline of Flight IY626 (BBC)
* Airlines You Should Avoid (Daily Beast)
* The Fate of Air France Flight 447 (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry

Comments

Thanks for the link travelergwen. We will add it.
Tom
Conde Nast Travler

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