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Air Algerie Crash Investigators Weigh Weather as Cause

By Kari Lundgren, Simon Gongo and Pauline Bax
July 25, 2014 5:46 AM EDT 35 Comments

An Air Algerie MD-83 carrying 116 people crashed in Mali as it flew to Algiers from Burkina Faso, leaving no survivors and marking the third major civil-aviation disaster in the space of a week.

Flight AH5017 took off from the west African country shortly after midnight yesterday carrying 110 passengers and six Spanish crew and is thought to have crashed about two hours later. A Reaper drone located the wreckage inside the territory of Mali, near the Burkina Faso border, and a French military helicopter formally identified the plane at 2 a.m.

While weather may have been a factor, “it is too early to draw any conclusions,” French President Francois Hollande said at a press conference following a meeting of the inner cabinet in Paris today. “There are unfortunately no survivors.”

The loss of the plane over Africa follows the downing of a Malaysian Air Boeing Co. 777 over eastern Ukraine on July 17 following a suspected missile strike, killing all 298 people on board. On July 23, an ATR-72 turbo-prop crashed on the Penghu Islands in Taiwan, leaving 48 people dead. Recovering the wreckage and flight recorders may prove difficult as the plane went down in a thinly populated semi-arid area with constantly shifting terrain, potentially obscuring the crash site.

The French military has secured the site and found one black box, Hollande said. Mali’s transportation minister, Mamadou Hachim Koumare, confirmed that the plane was found in the country’s territory, and said government leaders will visit the site today.

“Sad Week”

“This has been a very sad week for everyone involved with aviation,” International Air Transport Association Chief Executive Officer Tony Tyler said in a statement. The Air Algerie incident takes the potential 2014 death toll to 680 travelers, higher than the 12-month totals for the past three years, according to air-safety consultants Ascend Worldwide.

Fifty French citizens were aboard the Air Algerie plane, Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedraogo told reporters in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso. Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore said 28 Burkina Faso citizens were on board, and declared a national mourning. Other passengers include eight people from Lebanon, six Algerians, five Canadians and four Germans, Swiftair said. Two citizens of Luxembourg were also on board, according to the country’s Foreign Ministry.

Sahel Zone

The aircraft asked the control tower in Niamey, Niger, to divert because of a storm about 40 minutes after taking off, Ouedraogo said, without saying where he got the information. According to AccuWeather meteorologist Anthony Sagliani, thunderstorms in the region were not particularly violent.

“In general, there were scattered showers and thunderstorms across all of Burkina Faso and the southern half of Mali,” he said in in a statement. “This was with the monsoon trough which is typically found here in late July. So this activity was quite normal.”

Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali share a border in the southern Sahel, a semi-arid zone below the Sahara desert that is sparsely populated and with few roads. The Sahel stretches more than 5,400 kilometers across Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east.

MD-83 planes belong to a family of twin-engine, short- to medium-range, single-aisle commercial airliners that were introduced in 1980. They were built by McDonnell Douglas Corp., acquired by Boeing Co. (BA) in 1997. Boeing had no immediate comment. The Swiftair MD-83 was built in 1996 and equipped with two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 PW engines.

The MD-83

Other incidents involving the model include the loss of an Alaska Airlines flight over the Pacific ocean in 2000, caused by inadequate maintenance, which killed all 88 people on board. In 2012, a Dana Airlines flight from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, crashed into the heavily populated Agege suburb of Lagos killing 153 people on board and 10 on the ground.

Swiftair, a private company created in 1986, has more than 400 employees and has a fleet of more than 30 planes, which include models such as the Boeing 727 and 737, MD-83, ATR-72/-42, Embraer 120 and Metroliner, according to its website. Customers listed on the site include Fedex Corp. (FDX) and United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS), and the company also services corporate clients and tour operators.

Air Algerie has had seven fatal airplane accidents since 1960, according to the Aviation Safety Network website. The most recent accident happened in 2003, when 102 passengers and crew were killed on a Boeing 737, according to the network. The plane stalled on a flight to Algiers and crashed into rocky terrain beyond the runway, ASN said.

While only one western-built jet hull was lost in Africa last year, the continent’s safety record is still worse than anywhere else in the world, according to the IATA. There were 7.45 accidents per million flights in Africa in 2013, compared with a global rate of one accident for every 2.4 million flights, IATA said in April.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kari Lundgren in London at klundgren2@bloomberg.net; Simon Gongo in Ouagadougou at sgongo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net

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