Sinai plane crash: Russian airline had spotty safety record

Airline officials say 'external impact' caused crash. Aviation officials say the conclusion is premature.

ALTERNATIVE CROP - In this photo taken on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, The Russian airline Kogalymavia’s Airbus A321 with a tail number of EI-ETJ on an airstrip of Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport, outside Moscow, Russia.  Russia's civil air agency is expected to have a news conference shortly to talk about the Russian Metrojet passenger plane EI-ETJ, that Egyptian authorities say has crashed in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. (AP Photo/Tatiana Belyakova)

(Tatiana Belyakova, AP Photo)

MOSCOW —  The Russian airline that operated the plane that crashed in Egypt on Saturday, killing all 224 people on board, has a spotty safety record and even rebranded recently in the wake of another deadly accident.

Metrojet changed its trade name after a 2011 accident in which one of its planes, a Soviet-made Tu-154, caught fire while taxiing out before takeoff, killing three people and injuring more than 40 others.

The airline, previously called Kogalymavia, was founded in 1993, when the Soviet state monopoly, Aeroflot, split into hundreds of small airlines, some of them with just one or two planes. Kogalymavia, which drew its name from the city of Kogalym in the oil-rich western Siberia, has run a network of domestic flights and later extended its operations to charter flights abroad.

In 2010, one of its Tu-154 jets chartered by an Iranian carrier but operated by Kogalymavia’s crew, made a rough landing in deep fog in Iran, injuring more than 40 people.

In 2012, the airline rebranded itself and ditched its fleet of aging Soviet-built airliners to acquire seven Airbus A321-200s and a few other planes.

Metrojet, the trade name for the company which is still registered as Kogalymavia, is part of a commercial holding that also includes Brisco tourist company. The airline has been widely used by Brisco and other Russian tourist companies for charter flights to Egypt and other popular tourist destinations.

Saturday’s disaster saw Metrojet’s Airbus A321-200 crash into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula 23 minutes after taking off from the Sharm el-Sheik airport, abruptly plummeting from its cruising altitude. Russian aviation officials said that the large area over which its fragments were scattered indicates the plane broke up at high altitude, but they wouldn’t name any possible cause pending the probe.

The plane that crashed was 18 years old and previously had served with several other carriers. Before joining Metrojet’s fleet in 2012, it was known to suffer a 2001 incident, in which it grazed the ground with its tail while landing in Cairo.

Some aviation experts theorized that such an incident could have weakened the plane’s airframe, although Metrojet said the jet has been safe to fly.

Metrojet officials have insisted that the airline has strictly observed safety regulations, and strongly denied that Saturday’s crash could have been caused by equipment failure or pilot error. They have pointed at an unspecified “external impact” on the plane as the only possible reason.

Russian aviation officials called that statement premature.


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