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07.01.09

Changing Planes Can Kill You

In the wake of the Yemen crash, Clive Irving says, don’t be fooled: If you are making a long-distance flight on a reputable carrier but are connecting to a smaller airline, check that airline.

The sole survivor of the plane crash in the Indian Ocean, a 14-year-old girl, lived by holding on to wreckage in the cold water. "She couldn't feel anything," her father said. (Read more here.) In the wake of the incident, Daily Beast aviation expert Clive Irving warns: If you are making a long-distance flight on a reputable carrier but are connecting to a smaller airline, check that airline.

Reports that the black boxes from the Yemeni Airways Airbus 310 that crashed in the Comoros Islands yesterday have been found 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 Yemeni 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 size 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.

Some people who had flown in this same plane previously talked of it being as decrepit as a cattle car.

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 cockpit. 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. In fact, the A310 that went down Monday had, according to French authorities, been banned from French air space because of its poor condition.

As I reported Tuesday, Yemeni Airways was on the European Union’s watch list, a candidate for its black list that includes more than 160 airlines worldwide. This crash exposes a serious loophole in that regime. The flight from Paris to Yemen was made on an A330, a far younger airplane and presumably one that passed French inspections. But the passengers bound for the Comoros changed planes in Yemen to the A310. Some people who had flown in this same plane previously talked 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, don’t fly on any Indonesian-based carrier. All 50 of them are on the list.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Clive Irving: Airlines You Should Avoid

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.