France Touched By 2 Recent Plane Crashes
DAVID GREENE, host:
With the crash of a Yemenia Airlines Airbus in the Indian Ocean yesterday, the focus has turned to air safety, particularly for planes that fly routes in the Third World. The flight went down as it approached the Comoros Islands off the coast of East African. Only one of the 153 passengers survived.
The accident has cast doubt on Yemenia's safety record, and it's also prompted questions about a two-tiered aviation safety system.
Eleanor Beardsley sent this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Yemenia Airways Flight 626 originated in Paris and picked up more passengers in Marseilles before heading toward the Comoros Islands. Following usual procedure, the Yemenia Airlines Airbus A330 touched down in Yemen, where passengers and crews switch to an A310 for the last leg of the journey. Just minutes before it was scheduled to land, the plane plunged into the sea.
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Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: And so for the second time in a month, France awoke to news of a fatal plane crash involving French citizens, and panicked families crowded into a crisis center at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. The country is still reeling from the crash of the Air France flight over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1st. But this time, families' grief turned quickly to anger as they blamed Yemenia Airlines for the disaster.
Jalifa Yusuf(ph) and Jean Abood(ph), who had relatives on the flight, said everyone had been expecting such an accident due to the deplorable state of the planes that fly from Yemen to the Comoros.
Ms. JALIFA YUSUF: (Through Translator) Nobody wanted to hear our message about these coffins that are taking us to the Comoros. We're not here as victims. We're here to denounce the way this company treats us.
Mr. JEAN ABOOD: (Through Translator) The treat us like dogs. They change planes on us in Yemen and pack us into these wrecks that are nothing but flying coffins.
BEARDSLEY: Most of the French people on the flight were members of France's large Comorian community going home for vacation. Others who have made the trip before spoke of planes that smelled of urine and seats with no seat belts. As it turns out, the A310 in question did not pass a French inspection in 2007, but never returned to European airspace.
The European Union does have a black list in place, with more than 200 airlines that are prohibited from flying inside the E.U. Ironically, Yemenia Airlines is not on the list. This prompted the E.U. transport minister to call for a worldwide black list.
But pilot and air safety specialist Chris Roberts says you can't make things better by simply creating a black list unless you have a follow-up system to go with it.
Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS (Pilot, Air Safety Specialist): Once you've found an airplane somewhere which is deemed to be deficient by a certain group of agents or regulators, then the airline concerned should have to present that airplane internationally somewhere in order for it to be given a clean bill of health. Otherwise, the whole airline should be stopped flying.
BEARDSLEY: This morning, a group of angry French Comorians at Charles de Gaulle Airport tried to keep the flight from leaving. Yemenia Airlines insists that its A310 had passed safety checks, but Comorians accused the airline of using its best planes in Europe and leaving the unsafe ones for Africans.
That about sums it up, says aeronautics expert Jean-Pierre Rotelli(ph).
Mr. JEAN-PIERRE ROTELLI (Aeronautics Expert): (Through Translator) When you, as a tourist, leave France and fly on a domestic carrier in Africa or South America or Southeast Asia, you'll probably be flying on an airline that should be black listed but isn't, because its few good planes fly to Europe.
BEARDSLEY: The crash is also clearly a blow to Airbus's image, although no one is blaming the maker of half the world's airplanes for this accident. This morning, French authorities say they located the plane's black box, and in what is being hailed as a miracle, a 14-year-old girl was found alive floating amidst the wreckage.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.