Cause Of Deadly EgyptAir Crash Finally Revealed?

Filed Under: EgyptAir

Oh EgyptAir…

EgyptAir’s Mysterious Plane Crashes

EgyptAir has historically had a not-amazing safety record, and perhaps most alarming has been that the cause of two crashes remains unknown. This is concerning because airlines can’t do anything to improve safety if they’re not able to (or are unwilling to) figure out or admit what happened.

The two crashes that stand out are the following:

  • In 1999 EgyptAir 990 crashed enroute from New York to Cairo; most international investigators agree that the relief pilot intentionally crashed the plane, while Egyptian authorities strongly dispute that
  • In 2016 EgyptAir 804 crashed enroute from Paris to Cairo; up until now the cause has been unknown, with Egyptian investigators insisting that a bomb detonated onboard, though international investigators have disputed that

It’s incredibly mysterious that the cause of a plane crash as recent as 2016 can’t be determined. Then again, a 777 disappeared into thin air just a few years prior to that, so I guess nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

Anyway, it looks like we now have a better sense of what caused the crash of EgyptAir 804.

EgyptAir 804 Basics & Theories

EgyptAir 804 was scheduled to fly from Paris to Cairo on May 19, 2016, and was operated by an A320. The plane crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, and killed all 66 people onboard.

Up until now Egyptian authorities have insisted that a bomb went off on the plane. They’ve based this on traces of TNT being found on the bodies of victims, though since bodies were in seawater for several weeks, other authorities said it was normal for traces of such explosives to be found. Furthermore, these were never found on the bodies of French victims that were returned to the country.

International investigators have disputed this theory all along. They say that a smoke detector in the forward lavatory went off, and that shortly before the crash passengers moved towards the back of the plane, suggesting there was a fire near the front of the plane.

Some Clues As To What Really Happened

The Wall Street Journal has revealed disturbing findings from an investigation into what happened to EgyptAir 804.

The issue seems to stem from the fact that Egyptian authorities were in charge of the investigation (since it was an EgyptAir plane), and they’ve withheld key information from other investigators.

They simply insisted that a bomb brought down the plane, but were unwilling to share a lot of their findings, citing the secrecy of their counterterrorism inquiry.

Now a French judicial probe has been completed (since French citizens died on the plane), which paints a very different picture of what happened. They have determined that maintenance and safety lapses left the plane unsafe to fly in the days before it crashed. Specifically, a leak of oxygen in the cockpit preceded a fire that likely disabled the plane.

According to this investigation, automated messages from the A320 involved in the crash reported serious mechanical errors on the final five flights, and those were largely ignored by the airline.

The pilots on these flights never mentioned the issues in post-flight reports, even though these issues should have set off alarms inside the plane. The EgyptAir ground technician also said that neither the airline nor the pilots informed him of these issues. On top of that, investigators are questioning if the EgyptAir technician in Paris who inspected the plane was qualified to service aircraft in Europe.

According to the documents from the investigation:

“The plane should have been checked during its four previous flights, and should not have left Cairo after the appearance of repeated faults that were not reported by successive teams.”

It’s clear that the Egyptian officials have been trying to block this investigation to such a great degree. In May 2018 the French and Egyptians met in Cairo, and French authorities were allowed to view aircraft debris, but not touch it. The French asked for a copy of the plane’s cockpit voice recorder, but Egyptian authorities refused, citing it as a secret criminal investigation.

But as it turns out, information was even being withheld between French investigators. France’s air crash investigation bureau held a backup copy of the data for quite a while, but refused to share it with the French judicial probe, arguing that they promised Egyptian authorities that they wouldn’t. So arguably that delayed the investigation by about 18 months.

Bottom Line

While I’ve enjoyed my flights on EgyptAir, it’s always disheartening and irresponsible for an airline (or perhaps country in this case, since EgyptAir is state owned) to be more focused on covering up problems and fault, than to focus on making the airline as safe as possible (in fairness, Boeing could be described in a similar way at the moment).

I’m happy to see that we’re getting closer to finding out what really happened to EgyptAir 804.

(Featured image courtesy of Aktug Ates)

Comments
  1. An EU blacklist on EgyptAir should at the very least be considered. Moreover, does no one else find it odd that we got comfortable with the TNT explanation? Maybe because Cairo Airport has had several security lapses in the past, as well?

  2. Good article. As a side note, you’ve said, “I’ve enjoyed my flights on EgyptAir.” Isn’t that a little overstating it?

  3. Oxygen leak followed by a fire – that’s the oxygen tank under the cockpit floor igniting, I’ve actually suspected for a while that this is what happened. Similar incidents have happened on the ground, for example on a DHL 767 and – even more importantly – an EGYPTAIR 777. Luckily in these incidents the planes were evacuated and nobody was hurt, but such an occurrence in the air would be (and I guess in this instance was) absolutely disastrous.

  4. As I wrote on another blog:

    If you want to make your hair stand on end, click on the below link and read what happened on MS 990. It must have been absolutely terrifying for those onboard.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EgyptAir_Flight_990

    I trained as an Egyptologist and lived in Luxor; flying United Arab Airlines and later EgyptAir many times, but since the crash of flight 990 I’ve never stepped aboard an EgyptAir plane.

  5. I‘m sure there will be no consequences, such as blacklisting. Egypt is politically and economically a key partner of both the US and the EU in the region. The blacklists concentrate on jurisdictions which are politically and economically non-compliant, e.g. Iran, Venezuela, Sudan; or which are extremely small and of little global relevance, e.g. Sao Tomé or the Comores.

    Btw, the same pattern can be observed with travel warnings.

  6. As John mentioned, such behavior on the part of the government is very normal in Egypt. I’ve lived and travelled in Egypt extensively and can say it’s only getting worse, unfortunately.

  7. Malc’s comment about William Langewiesche’s great article on EgyptAir 990….yes, an excellent descriptor of the event.

    The eye opener for me, from investigator Bernard Loeb: “How many cockpit voice recordings have I heard? Hundreds? Thousands? When someone has a problem with an airplane, you know it. One of our investigators used to say to me, ‘These damned pilots, they don’t tell us what’s happening. Why don’t they say, “It’s the rudder!”‘ They don’t do that. But I’ll tell you what they do say. They make clear as hell that there’s something really wrong. ‘What the hell’s going on? What is that?’ Every single one of them. When there’s a control problem of some sort, it is so crystal clear that they are trying desperately to diagnose what is going on. Right to when the recorder quits. They are fighting for their lives.

    “But this guy is sitting there saying the same thing in a slow, measured way, indicating no stress. The captain comes in and asks what’s going on, and he doesn’t answer! That’s what you start with. Now you take the dual actuator failure that doesn’t match the flight profile, and is also fully recoverable. Where do you want to go after that?”

    The plane is in a dive, and the only pilot in the cockpit is calmly sitting there as if on a park bench. Then a split column? I asked a United 767 pilot about the crash not long after it occurred, and he shuddered at the thought.

  8. I predict you’ll continue to enjoy your flights on Egypt Air, not only because you’re Lucky,
    but also because when your flight crashes we can then just presume you enjoyed most of the flight.

  9. Went to Egypt about 5 years ago with my sons….couldn’t bring myself to book Egyptian….so we took Turkish Air….5 hr delay (apparently common on late flight to Istanbul)….now I kind of regret the time wasted….but who knows……Egypt air a bit scary…but I did fly it internally from Aswan to Cairo……

  10. We flew Egypt Air about 10 years ago from Larnaca to Nairobi and had a rather ordinary flight . Cairo airport was the worst experience , we had about 10 hours stopover and they committed a hotel . It took 2 hours to arrange and get on a shuttle bus at airport , about 30 minutes to hotel and then we had to return to airport for be there 3 hours before flight ( they insisted ) . So we had about 4 hours sleep in the 2 star hotel !!
    Never again.

  11. Unfortunately all the comments I read are very biased against EGYPTAIR. The Egyptian flag carrier is one of the pioneer airlines in the world (established in 1932). Having two fatal crashes over a span of two decades does not qualify an airline to be blacklisted, otherwise we would find a number of big European/US famous carriers join the list. Please stop these unfair and provoking comments and deal with the matter in a more pragmatic approach and stop this trend of demonizing anything which is non-western

  12. @ A Realistic Passenger — The objections are to systematic attempts to cover up what happened. It seems reasonable to protest that. (Once again, I urge you to read William Langewiesche’s article – see above. He’s one of the world’s leading longform journalists and probably the finest one writing on aviation.)

  13. I flew Egyptair from Luxor to Cairo last year. I also flew Nile Air from Cairo to Aswan. Unremarkable flights.

  14. why is anyone surprised. Deception, denial and lying is common in this part of the world. Remember when the Egypt Air pilot committed suicide and took down the plane ? I am surprised that more plane, operated by sub-par countries, aren’t crashing.

    Flyer beware – Do not fly these airlines !

  15. Went to Egypt in 2008. Will never go back. Worst airport experience both IN and OUT that I ever had. Talk about a *%$!hole of a country…

  16. an excellent, even handed article.

    i agree with (many) others that EgyptAir should be added to the EU black list – the only way that they might be forced to improve maintenance.

  17. I am surprised as hell nothing has been done to bring this more to light, and to use diplomatic or sanctions (EU or US ban on flights) measures to try to get adherence to international maintenance practices. This is a real outlier and threatens passenger safety. I really believe it’s up to the US and EU governments to keep their citizens safe by requiring proper SOP for the airlines flying into their airspace. With little to no publicity regarding these findings (at least in the US) anyone who is not an aviation geek will blithely pick the cheapest option assuming it’s safe. An airline with apparent systemic failures to report issues, address issues quickly, and then cover up incidents is just a disaster waiting to happen.

    Thanks for the informative article. (and I am still going to Egypt for work this year, and to see the sites, but not on this airline).

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