The Geopolitics of Air Crash Investigations

Russia and Egypt have other priorities than discovering the true cause of the Sinai crash.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Egyptian soldiers collect personal belongings of victims at the site of the Metrojet plane crash in the Sinai, November 2, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When a large airliner crashes in the West, killing hundreds, a well-oiled investigation process immediately clicks into place. National aviation boards of the country where the crash took place, where the airline operates and where the flight originated cooperate with the plane’s manufacturer, and nowadays that is almost always either Boeing or Airbus, in a probe that costs tens, often hundreds of millions of dollars. Every physical remnant of the plane is collected and, in a special hangar, rebuilt. The maintenance records are examined, back to the plane’s maiden flight. Every second in the cockpit on the fateful day is recreated and analyzed. Sometimes this process costs more than the original price of the aircraft.

This isn’t just a commitment to international cooperation and public transparency. The main motive is financial. The air-transport business, a central engine of the global economy, cannot afford question marks over its safety. Tens of billions are invested in the development of a new Boeing or Airbus airliner and ensuring a perfect safety record. Each crash has to be linked to a human factor – pilot error or faulty maintenance, rather than a design or structural flaw.

This is how the two mega-corporations built their commanding position and attempts by Russian, Chinese and Canadian manufacturers in recent years to break into the market of airliners capable of flying hundreds of passengers have been doomed to failure. They just can’t compete with the duopoly. So when, despite all the design and quality-control, a Boeing or Airbus does crash, the entire Western economy has a shared interest in holding a speedy, reliable and comprehensive investigation.

But that interest is irrelevant when the crash involves other countries – like in the case of the Airbus A321 operated by Russian Kogalymavia that crashed on Saturday morning in Sinai, killing all 224 aboard. The Russians and Egyptians don’t care about the profitability of the European manufacturer. Of course, they are officially cooperating with Airbus’ representatives, and with each other, but Egypt is controlling access to the black boxes' recordings, the recordings from the Sharm a-Sheikh control tower and of course the crash site in northern Sinai. Transparency and reliability could come lower on President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s list of priorities than preserving Egypt’s national pride and ensuring the continued stream of tourists, vital to the country’s economy, to the beaches of the Red Sea.

Meanwhile the Russian side holds the maintenance records of the plane (which were seized within hours from the airline’s St. Petersburg office) and questions the company’s executives and employees and relatives of the dead pilots. Results of the investigation will first have to serve the narrative that President Vladimir Putin’s administration chooses to present to the Russian public. And since the primary suspect – if, as it is gradually looking likely, the cause was a bomb on the plane – will be Islamic State, the organization that Russia claims to be fighting now in Syria, the Kremlin’s propagandists will have to work hard at crafting the message that fits Putin’s strategy.

Both countries have a problematic record in investigating air-crashes. Russia continues to deny, despite a detailed report by Holland’s aviation authority, that the Malaysian Boeing 777 that took off in July 2014 from Amsterdam and crashed in eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew, was shot down by a long-range Russian missile launched from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Instead they spread ridiculous conspiracy theories of a Ukrainian fighter jet shooting it down. Egypt as well, to this day, denies all evidence that the crash of an Egyptair flight in 1999, killing 217 people, was caused intentionally by an Egyptian pilot angry over his imminent demotion. Instead they continue to insist on baseless technical theories.

Just like then, the Egyptian regime and its compliant media are responding with angry denials, as well as a mixture of hurt national pride and anxiousness for the future of tourism, to the reports that came first from London on the growing suspicion that a bomb was planted on the Russian plane. Egyptian pundits accused Britain of “supporting terror,” but in this case, at least, it’s very hard to accuse David Cameron’s government of bad faith. Cameron took flak this week from the opposition and human rights organizations for hosting “Dictator” Sissi in London. The British government wouldn’t have embarrassed the Egyptians with such timing if it hadn’t received reliable intelligence that led to the decision to protect its citizens and cancel all British flights from Sharm al-Sheikh.

The Russian calculations are much more complex and further complicated by President Vladimir Putin’s desire to present his country as the main rival to ISIS, by the worsening relations between Russia and the West and Putin’s need to stoke patriotic fervor among Russians. Meanwhile, his government is facing mounting criticism that it turns a blind eye towards shoddy maintenance of aircraft operated by Russian carriers, leading to a series of fatal crashes. Only this week, another Russian cargo plane crashed in South Sudan.

Yesterday Russia’s civil aviation authority surprisingly announced the “grounding” of all Boeing 737 airliners operated by Russian companies, without a clear reason. The decision was seen as another nationalist PR exercise aimed at maligning Western technology. Tatiana Anodina, who has served as chairman of the aviation authority for 25 years, is also the mother of the owner of Transaero, Russia’s second-largest airline until last month when it was forced to announce bankruptcy. The fact that the mother was in charge of enforcing safety requirements over the planes operated by her son’s company was just one telling illustration of the condition of Russian aviation.

Over the last decade, most Russian airlines replaced their aging Soviet fleets with newer Boeings and Airbuses. Russian manufacturers offered new models and were turned down. The long-range airliner Russia hoped would compete with the Western product, the Ilyushin Il-96, was such a failure it sold less than 10 planes and even the national carrier, Aeroflot, retired them due to safety concerns. Today it only flies with Cuba’s airline and as Putin’s presidential jet.