Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Why You Should Care About Metrojet Flight 9268
November 12, 2015 --Let's be honest: There aren't many Americans outside the aviation and intelligence communities who care about the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 two weeks ago over the Sinai Desert. Even frequent flyers, who usually pay attention as a matter of self-preservation, seem oddly detached and disinterested. This malaise is a terrible mistake. Beyond the human tragedy — 224 people died on October 31 as they flew from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to St. Petersburg, Russia — there are a host of fascinating and frightening angles to the crash. The incident itself, the politics and the players involved and the long-term implications are all particularly poignant. Our lives on the road will be affected — and few of the repercussions are likely to be positive.
What we know happenedSince so many of us have gone blank on this crash, let's start with the basic facts. Twenty-three minutes after departure from the airport in the Red Sea resort, an 18-year-old Airbus A321 operating as a Russian charter flight disappeared from radar at about 30,000 feet. The aircraft broke up in flight and debris has been found over a large (about 8-mile) area of the North Sinai desert. The black boxes — the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders — have been recovered although at least one is reportedly damaged. All 217 passengers, mostly Russian tourists, and the seven crew members perished. It is the worst aviation disaster in Russian history and the worst on Egyptian soil. It is also the deadliest crash involving the Airbus A320 series of aircraft. As is standard with any crash, the official investigation is headed by aviation officials of the home country (Egypt) with the cooperation of the flight's home country (Russia), the plane's place of registration (Ireland), and France and Germany, the countries where the Airbus was designed and built. Neither the U.S. government nor respected U.S. investigative organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board are officially involved.
Speculating on the causeIt normally takes months to establish the primary cause of a crash and years for a definitive report to be released. That's because most crashes are a result of a confluence of factors. But mid-air break-ups of modern jet airliners are extremely rare and suspicion immediately centers on one of three logical causes: a missile strike, a catastrophic mechanical failure or a terrorist attack using an explosive device. Third-party aviation investigators point to an incident 14 years ago when the aircraft suffered a hard landing in Cairo. The plane's tail section was damaged and repaired. Metal fatigue or other problems could have caused the repair to fail two weeks ago during the flight. Some point to the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in 1985 as a blueprint for this type of catastrophic mid-air failure. However, multiple British and American intelligence sources last week independently claimed that they were virtually positive that Metrojet 9268 was bombed by a terrorist group. Moreover, affiliates of ISIS have claimed "credit" for attacking the aircraft since it crashed.
The politics of terrorismRussian and Egyptian officials are apoplectic over the intelligence community's claims of terrorism. That's not surprising because neither the Russians nor the Egyptians are considered "good actors" when it comes to aviation incidents and both have political reasons for actively resisting a conclusion of terrorism. The Russians are embarked on a risky intervention in Syria in support of dictator Bashar al-Assad. ISIS, which claim to be the protectors of Sunni Muslims, oppose the Syrian strongman partially because he is an Alawite, a sect of Shia Muslims. Russian president Vladimir Putin hasn't informed the Russian people of the potentially high cost of his involvement in Syria. Given Russia's chaotic financial state and the festering situation in the Ukraine, he can't be seen making a Middle East military blunder, too. Although Russian authorities belatedly joined Western nations in suspending flight to Sharm el-Sheikh because of terrorism concerns, they have continued to dispute the claims. They've also embarked on a bizarre campaign to shift blame onto Western-made aircraft. After the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268, Russian aviation authorities suspended the flying certificates of Boeing 737s operating in the country. The claim? Like the Airbus 321 involved in the Metrojet crash, nearly all Boeing 737s flying in Russia are registered in foreign countries and Russian regulators insist it is impossible to police their safety. Meanwhile, a member of Putin's ruling party in Parliament this week introduced a bill to ban any foreign-made aircraft that's more than 15 years old. There's no mechanical or aeronautic rationale for choosing the 15-year mark (or an aircraft's manufacture outside of Russia) save for the fact that the Metrojet-operated A321 was 18 years old and not built in Russia. Egypt's actions are even more bizarre — and have deeper domestic implications. Egypt has never accepted the well-documented conclusion that a suicidal pilot caused the 1999 Egyptair Flight 990 disaster. Why? The suicide reflected badly on the country's image. Moreover, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Egypt's military rulers, including general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, insist terrorism in the Sinai is under control and not a risk to visitors. Tourism accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Egypt's stunted economic output and a high-profile terrorism incident such as an aircraft bombing would further erode the country's ability to attract foreign visitors.
The rock and the hard placeRegardless of what caused the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268, the implications are dire. A mid-air catastrophe caused by mechanical failure will force aircraft manufacturers, airlines and regulators to rethink almost everything we currently believe about the reliability of modern aircraft. It'll also throw a justifiable scare into the flying public. If the crash was caused by terrorism — a bomb placed by an airport insider is the current theory — woe to us. Many U.S. airports once again have armed National Guard personnel patrolling the terminals. It's also inevitable that the Transportation Security Administration will be more picayune at security checkpoints because nothing says "enhanced security" better then confiscating oversized tubes of toothpaste from carry-on bags. Meanwhile, there's mounting evidence that the TSA isn't controlling the back of the airport house. In recent months, we've learned of airport gun-running rings, ISIS fighters with security clearances, and copious amounts of stolen security credentials. All that said, let's be honest again: Are you interested in this crash now?
This column is Copyright © 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.