Yemen Airbus Crash Draws Attention to Safety Standards

An Airbus A310-300 from Yemen with 153 people on board crashed into choppy seas as it tried to land in bad weather on the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros on June 30, 2009.
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 9:14 AM

A crashed Yemenia Airbus A310 submerged in waters near the African coast along with the bodies of as many as 152 passengers -- only a teenage girl apparently survived -- is focusing more scrutiny on the safety of Airbus planes and the world's aviation system.

The flight recorder from the 24-year-old A310-300 airplane has been located, the airline's head told Reuters today.

Airbus confirmed that the airplane, operated by Yemen's national carrier, crashed near the Comoros Islands shortly after 1:50 a.m. yesterday. The flight had departed from the city of Sana'a in Yemen and was headed to Moroni in the Comoro Islands, along the East African coast northwest of Madagascar.

The Associated Press said the Yemenia plane was flying the final leg of a trip from France to the Comoros and carried 66 French citizens. AP said France's transport minister told a television station that the aviation inspectors found a "number of faults" during a 2007 inspection of the plane.

For the second time in a month, Airbus Industrie has confronted crisis. On June 1, an Air France Airbus A330 en route to Paris from Brazil was lost over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

"It's a rough month for Airbus," said John Hansman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Aviation safety experts caution against drawing a link between the two crashes. They say the A310 is a far different aircraft from the A330. The A330, like most new airplanes, uses advanced electronics and a computer-controlled system. The A310 is largely controlled through a system of hydraulics and cables. The heavy reliance on computer systems is a focus of investigators in the Air France case.

Still, Airbus planes are under intense scrutiny. Last week the National Safety Transportation Board said it was investigating two reports of Airbus A330 planes experiencing airspeed and altitude malfunctions. The latest crash will carry special reverberations in France, still reeling after the Air France tragedy. A memorial service at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in June for families of victims drew thousands of people, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said the recent crashes could lead France to demand closer scrutiny of international aviation safety.

"This, of course, is very important to the French public and the government," Voss said. "There is a great deal of pride associated with Airbus and Air France."

Airbus is headquartered in Toulouse, France. Together with Boeing, Airbus dominates the commercial aircraft industry. There were conflicting reports about survivors yesterday. Youssouf Mbae, assistant to Comoros Islands' U.S. ambassador, said a small child also survived the accident. But there was no way to verify the report. As of yesterday afternoon, Mbae said search crews were still looking for survivors in what he described as rough waters.

Yemenia mainly serves cities in the Middle East and Africa. In a note on its Web site, Yemenia said it regretted the accident.

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