After two weeks of confusion in the search for EgyptAir Flight 804, French officials confirmed that signals have been detected from a beacon on one of the airplane’s flight data recorders. The batteries powering the beacon had only two weeks of life left in them.
French naval vessel Laplace that picked up the signals had been on the scene only one day. This much hoped-for success reveals that searchers had a very accurate fix on where the Airbus A320 went down in the eastern Mediterranean. And the break that enabled such accuracy was apparently due to the successful operation of a device that many experts thought was unlikely to survive a crash into water—an emergency locator transmitter, ELT, attached to the rear of the airplane.
These transmitters failed to work in two other cases where an airliner crashed into water: Air France Flight 447 in 2009 and Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014.
In this instance the ELT seems to have worked as intended—automatically registering an impact with water and then sending half-second bursts every 50 seconds to a satellite. It must have kept sending the bursts because, according to experts, it can take up to 100 mins for the satellite to provide an accurate fix.
Only a few small pieces of floating wreckage have been found. This suggests that the bulk of the Airbus sank and it can be lying at depths of as much as 10,000 feet. With confirmation from the French investigation agency, the BEA, that a locator signal has been picked up from the wreck more equipment will be needed to reach the site and is aboard a second ship, the John Lethbridge, that will arrive this week.
This welcome break in the search highlights the challenges to an investigation that, from the beginning, has been bedeviled by poor communication.
Air crashes provoke irrational fears of flying way beyond what is justified by the actual risks. But this crash and two others have shown how air crash angst can be made much worse by the way investigations into their causes are impaired by the actions of the countries most involved in them.
Accident investigations are always challenging, because they involve an exacting level of forensic skill. The explanation of why an airplane crashes can sometimes involve something as small as a single piece of wiring. The more difficult cases can take years to solve. Occasionally there is no clear answer.
Two of the crashes involve the same country, Egypt. To be sure, it would be devastating for any country to experience two disasters of such a scale within seven months. In October an Airbus 321 flown by Russian budget airline Metrojet crashed in the Sinai, killing 224 people. Two weeks ago EgyptAir Flight 804 fell into the Mediterranean 180 miles north of Alexandria, killing 66 people.
After the Metrojet crash Egyptian officials faced a difficult clash of international interests. Since the jet crashed in Egyptian air space the investigation was their responsibility. But the Russians felt an equal urgency to find out what had downed their jet and Russian investigators were allowed to comb the crash site with impunity. Moreover, they were allowed to take pieces of the wreckage to Moscow for analysis and rapidly announced that they had found evidence of an explosion from a bomb planted in the cabin.
At the same time the Egyptian officials were bristling at suggestions that security was lax at Sharm al-Sheik airport, where the flight originated. They realized that the disaster would be a serious blow to Egyptian tourism. And almost immediately European and Russian airlines organized a mass evacuation of their passengers from the Red Sea resorts served by the airport and halted all further flights.
Ayman al-Muqaddam, the head of Egypt’s air accident authority, was said be in charge of the investigation, although later the Egyptian air force said it was responsible for gathering and analyzing the debris. There was never any sign that this investigation would be conducted, as it would have been in the U.S. or Europe, with strict immunity to political pressures. Nor was there any attempt to clarify the hierarchy of authority that governed it, or to control the release of information about the accident to ensure that what was said was supported by actual physical evidence.
The Russian assertion that a bomb was responsible was reinforced by British official statements that it was “more than likely” an act of terrorism. American intelligence sources also briefed reporters that they strongly suspected a bomb, although they could provide no evidence to support their suspicions. Indeed, there was no convincing reason why, at this stage, investigators should not have kept an open mind and continued to examine the wreckage for the possibility that a catastrophic mechanical failure had brought down the airplane.
By mid-December an Egyptian committee that was now seemingly running the investigation announced that so far there was “no evidence that there is an act of terror or illegal intervention.” This was immediately countered by the Russians who remained adamant that it was a terrorist action.
Two months later the Egyptian president, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, agreed with the Russians and said that the attack was intended to both damage Egyptian tourism (which it had certainly achieved) [Office1] and harm Egypt’s relations with Russia.
The only physical evidence appearing to point to a bomb had actually come from ISIS who published a picture of what it claimed to be a device improvised from a soda can that it said had been taken on to the airplane by a passenger and detonated. However, given that 18 days had elapsed between the crash and the publication of the picture, this claim could well have been opportunistic rather than authentic.
General el-Sisi’s acceptance of the Russian verdict has still not, apparently, been endorsed by investigators who remain interested in the airplane’s past history of structural damage and poor maintenance.
Egypt’s handling of the loss of Flight 804 in the Mediterranean has shown the same pattern of confusion. The earliest stages of an investigation are inevitably conducted against a background of high public attention and anxiety. People demand quick reassurance and answers. Yet speed is antithetical to the science of air crash inquiry.
In this case the Egyptians’ first bias was toward believing that a bomb had destroyed the airplane. Since the flight originated in Paris it was now the French, not the Egyptians, who were on the spot about airport security.
And the Egyptians were soon at odds with Greek officials, whose air traffic controllers had tried, without success, to contact the flight before it left their air space and who said that their radar tracking showed the Airbus making a sudden turn and then entering a spiral dive. Within days the Egyptians said they had no evidence of such an event.
A succession of erratic and contradictory statements from Cairo—for example a leak claiming that body parts recovered among wreckage provided evidence of an explosion that was immediately followed by an official denial—revealed no grasp of the discipline required to distinguish between verifiable facts and impulsive rumors.
Astonishingly it now emerges that the Egyptians knew that a distress signal had been picked up from the ELT via satellite but this was lost in early confusion that a signal had been picked up from a “black box”—a physical impossibility at that point.
International collaboration ought to be assured for an investigation like this that involves a variety of national interests. And any air crash investigation would normally consider itself lucky to have the kind of flight tracking resources that exist in the eastern Mediterranean. This is one of the most closely monitored air spaces in the world. As well as the radar in Greece and Egypt tracking the commercial airline routes the area is also closely watched by military satellites deployed by the United States, Britain, NATO, Turkey, and Russia. Israel also has an interest in the surveillance of the same skies.
However, none of these players is keen to disclose how effective their assets are, and given how prone Egyptian officials are to spin critical information to fit their own theories and agenda it’s highly unlikely that their intelligence services have been given access to any of the military satellite data.
Nobody disputes that Egypt is under the thumb of a hardline authoritarian regime. Paradoxically, this does not seem to produce disciplined, consistent and carefully constrained public responses to a disaster. Ministers with little grasp of the complexities of an air crash investigation make absurd statements. Rival bureaucracies don’t hesitate to contradict each other. Leaks abound.
The two crashes have severely harmed an already weak economy by devastating one of the country’s greatest sources of foreign currency, tourism. (New figures show that European budget tourists have deserted the Red Sea for Spanish resorts.) Whatever the causes of the crashes the effects have been made far worse by the responses of Egyptian officials because they completely undercut confidence in anything the government says.
There are inescapable parallels to be drawn between the lamentable performance of the Egyptian authorities and of Malaysian officials handling the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Malaysia is not a military-dominated autocracy but it has a ruling elite that has long enjoyed the kind of party patronage and cronyism that puts incompetent placeholders in charge of key ministries. Inevitably the rot in such a system gets exposed when such people suddenly find themselves required to show some understanding of public accountability.
To be fair, the calamity of Flight 370 presented the Malaysians with a challenge that would have tested any government. There was no precedent in the history of modern aviation for what had happened: an airplane with 239 people aboard had vanished without trace.
Facing the swarm of reporters who descended on Kuala Lumpur were ministers without any experience of—or tolerance for—the pressures of press conferences that were being watched by the whole world. Immediately they struggled to explain why the initial handling of the crisis had been botched. They were insensitive to the distress of the families of passengers. It took days to discover crucial radar tracking data on the course taken by the Boeing 777 after the pilots’ last contact with air traffic controllers and, as a result, a sea search was launched in the wrong area.
There were few dependable facts to feed the voracious 24-hour news cycle. Instead of acknowledging this, the Malaysians set out to construct their own narrative—the most egregious example being the suggestion that the pilots were responsible for the disaster. At the center of the maelstrom was Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense minister and acting transport minister. He became the face and voice of Malaysian obfuscation, floating “facts” and theories and then, within hours, reversing, contradicting or revising them, and in the process enraging reporters.
The Egyptian and Malaysian cases make it clear that, like or not, the way an air crash investigation is handled is always vulnerable to the political habits of the jurisdiction into which it falls. This is not, let it be said, an indictment that can be generalized. For instance, Indonesia, an immediate neighbor of Malaysia, carried out an exemplary investigation into the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 in December 2014, which killed 155 people.
The final report on the crash by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, NTSC, met the standard of clear and detailed analysis set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, a United Nations body based in Montreal.
All countries who are members of the ICAO (that includes Egypt and Malaysia) are obliged to follow the standards and procedures for air accident investigations set out in a benchmark document, Appendix 13 of the International Convention on Civil Aviation.
Appendix 13 mandates a format for the way published reports on investigations should be presented. The guiding principle is that although no two accidents are ever the same a uniform scientific method should be used to investigate them. The conclusions drawn from the investigation should be carefully and clearly laid out — no matter what country is responsible. And the ICAO text makes clear:
“The sole objective shall be the prevention of accidents. It is not the purpose of this activity to apportion blame or liability.”
There is, however, another side to Appendix 13 that can be problematic. It comes under the heading of “Non-disclosure of Records” and says:
“The state conducting the investigation of an accident or incident shall not make the following records available for purposes other than accident or incident investigation, unless the appropriate authority for the administration of justice in that State determines that their disclosure outweighs the adverse domestic and international impact such action may have on that or any future investigation.”
This provision is easily appropriated as a gag order. Parties with an interest in the outcome can and do use non-disclosure as cover for not responding publicly when the cause of a crash is not quickly determined. And in the case of Flight 370, an unprecedented situation where little physical evidence is available to investigators, the lack of transparency borders on scandalous.
It is obvious that the prospect of costly and lengthy litigation hangs over the investigation. Boeing, the airline and the Malaysian government have lawyered up. Many people, including other airline chiefs with fleets of the airplane involved, the Boeing 777, have expressed frustration at the lack of communication from the investigation. Twenty-six months after the event, with teams from the U.S., Europe, Malaysia and Australia involved in the investigation testing every possible scenario, there is apparently no sense of a public obligation to counter wild conspiracy theories with credible interrogation and analysis.
In the face of this behavior, the edict of Appendix 13 bears repeating: “The sole objective shall be the prevention of accidents.”
But judging from the way the investigation is being handled in Kuala Lumpur, it’s the second part that seems to prevail: “It is not the purpose of this activity to apportion blame or liability.” It has been said that truth is the first casualty of wars. The same could be said of these air crash investigations, Let us hope that events in the Mediterranean will now allow facts to supplant chaos.