- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

From combined dispatches

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Swiss authorities said yesterday that the charter operators of an airliner that crashed into the Red Sea killing 148 persons had been barred from Swiss airspace because of safety problems more than a year ago.

Search teams, meanwhile, hunted with nets through shark-infested waters for the remains of the victims, who died Saturday in what French authorities said was most likely an accident caused by a loss of power.

There were 133 French tourists onboard the 11-year-old Boeing 737, which crashed minutes after takeoff from the tourist resort of Sharm el Sheik.

A Swiss civil aviation official said in Zurich that Flash Airlines, which operated the charter flight, has been banned from Swiss airspace since October 2002 because of safety concerns.

“During an inspection, we discovered that the airline was a danger to aviation security,” said Celestine Perissinotto, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation.

“If a company is forbidden [to use a countrys airspace], that means the problems are serious,” she told Reuters news agency.

Officials of Flash Airlines could not be reached to address the Swiss report directly, but reportedly insisted that they maintained high standards.

The ban was imposed after one of the company’s aircraft was found to be in breach of its specification documents, Mrs. Perissinotto said.

“The documents [on technical and operational issues] were not the same as the reality of the airplane that we checked,” she said, adding that the papers had been checked by Egyptian aviation authorities.

Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Ahmed Mohamed Shafiq Zaki responded by saying the Swiss had not punished Flash Airlines for safety violations.

The official Egyptian news agency MENA said he denied reports that Switzerland had refused to let Flash Airlines planes land on Swiss territory.

“He said that irresponsible statements should not be made in such circumstances,” the agency added.

Flash Airlines’ chief pilot Hassan Mounir denied that the Swiss ban stemmed from safety concerns, telling the Associated Press in Cairo “it was a financial problem.”

But Mr. Mounir confirmed Italian press reports that a Flash plane caught fire while flying over Greece in the same month as the Zurich airport inspection.

Italian tourists recalled seeing flames coming out of the starboard engine on a flight from Sharm el Sheik to Bologna, Italy, on Oct. 27, 2002. The plane landed at Athens airport with fire engines alongside the runway.

“To say that the plane was decrepit would be a compliment,” passenger Eugenio Gedda told Italian state television yesterday.

Fouad Hassoun, one of the partners in the Flash Group, which owns Flash Airlines, told the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera that the Boeing 737 had been properly maintained.

“Before the airplane takes off, everything has to be in order and its papers are fine. I don’t think any airplane could take off if its papers were not fine,” he said.

An official of Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said all planes belonging to private Egyptian companies were subject to regular inspections and that no plane was allowed to take off until its safety had been checked.

French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien told French television that investigators would check whether the airline had met international aviation standards.

As salvage crews in boats and planes scanned the Red Sea for bodies and wreckage, Mr. de Robien said in Paris that while no one could be absolutely certain, all indications pointed to an accident.

“There was no explosion before the crash. No one has claimed responsibility for [an] attack,” he said. “The arguments most commonly set out show that it was simply a loss of power,” he told French radio Europe 1.

French Deputy Foreign Minister Renaud Muselier toured the crash site as France sought to determine what happened to the plane. France mobilized specialist divers, plane crash investigators and other experts to the resort.

A radar-equipped frigate was due to arrive today to help in the search for the “black box” flight recorders, which should help explain what went wrong with the plane.

Mr. Muselier took a boat out to the crash site and threw a bouquet of red and white flowers, bearing the Egyptian and French flags, onto the water.

Search teams stretched a 330-foot net across the water to the north of the crash site, apparently to stop the tide from washing wreckage northwards.

Sixteen boats took part in the salvage operation. The salvage teams used small nets to gather up wreckage, although no body parts could be seen on the surface.

Search teams on Saturday recovered pieces of wreckage that had floated to the surface, personal effects such as toys and papers, as well as body parts.

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