The crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 is likely to place renewed scrutiny on whether U.S. aviation officials do enough to monitor the safety of the scores of foreign airlines that land and take off from U.S. soil.
While the cause of yesterday's crash likely won't be apparent for months, investigators will look closely at the airline's pilot training and aircraft maintenance and the oversight it receives from Egyptian regulatory authorities.
The Federal Aviation Administration has long contended that it has no authority under either U.S. law or international treaties to determine the safety of individual overseas airlines.
That is likely to change for some foreign carriers. By year's end the FAA is expected to sign on to some sort of increased scrutiny of foreign carriers that are partners of U.S. carriers. The Transportation Department inspector general recently recommended that the FAA begin assessing the safety risk of foreign airlines that form "code-share" partnerships wherein a U.S. airline sells tickets under its own name for flights flown by another airline. Passengers fly as if they were on only one airline, but all or a portion of the flight is on a foreign carrier with a foreign crew.
"Code-share is an initial step," FAA Inspector General Kenneth Mead said yesterday. "It is fair to say the aviation safety issue associated with globalization is one we all have to come to grips with."
Nearly half of Americans flying overseas use foreign carriers, and a large number of the passengers aboard Flight 990 were American. But EgyptAir does not appear to have any code-sharing arrangements with U.S. carriers.
A 1990 Newsday study of about 140 major international carriers found that the odds of dying on any EgyptAir flight were one in 117,000--the worst of any major carrier--compared with one in 5 million for most U.S. airlines. The study calculated the odds of dying by comparing data on the number of fatal flights per flights flown.
Before yesterday, however, the Egyptian carrier had not had any fatal accidents in the last 10 years. But it has experienced at least six nonfatal accidents that caused major or complete damage to the aircraft, according to an accident database compiled by Airclaims Ltd., a London firm.
One accident involved an EgyptAir Boeing 767, the same type of jet involved in yesterday's accident. On May 25, 1997, the inboard half of the thrust reverser sleeve on the right engine lifted suddenly while the jet was at cruising altitude. The outer portion of the sleeve tore away and damaged part of the wing, but the flight landed safely.
Before 1990, the FAA did little to assess the safety of foreign carriers. After an Avianca jet ran out of fuel and crashed on Long Island in 1990, however, the agency started a program in which it evaluated whether a country's regulatory oversight met the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations.
If FAA inspectors determined that a country failed to meet ICAO standards, its airlines were barred from flying to the United States. At least 14 countries have failed the inspections.
Egypt was evaluated by the FAA and found to meet ICAO standards. In fact, the country recently began a major effort to improve its regulatory oversight, contracting with the Center for Advanced Aviation Systems Development, a McLean-based arm of Mitre Corp., to provide assistance, a Mitre spokesman confirmed.
In 1996, ICAO decided to conduct its own evaluations of whether nations met its standards. The program began this year, but ICAO does not make its reports public.
While virtually every country has its own rules and regulations--sometimes the duplicate of FAA rules--aviation safety is largely the result of rigorous attention to detail. Nations that do a poor job often don't have the right regulatory authority in place and don't have enough trained safety inspectors, and so they fail to keep a close watch on the training and practices of their airlines.
Cost is one factor that makes it difficult to improve safety. The baseline cost for rewriting regulations, retaining personnel and setting up the right organizational structure is $5 million to $10 million, no matter the size of a country or its aviation fleet, according to a former FAA official.
Mead, the inspector general, said the FAA has protested that if it takes on additional scrutiny of foreign carriers, resources and personnel now devoted to domestic carriers will be eaten up. But pressure has been building for the agency to look at code-share partners because technically a code-share is a U.S. flight.
Mead said code-shares are a commercial transaction that must be approved by the U.S. government, and thus federal law requires that safety be a paramount consideration in approving them.
Delta Air Lines and American Airlines recently dropped code-share arrangements with Korean Airlines and China Airlines of Taiwan, respectively, after questions were raised about safety records.
Staff researchers Margot Williams and Richard Drezen contributed to this report.