Yemeni plane crash highlights the development gap

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On Tuesday, a Yemeni Airbus 310 passenger plane traveling from Sanaa, Yemen's capital, crashed as it neared an airstrip at Moroni, the capital of the Comoros Islands. Of 153 people on board, a single survivor has been found.

It's been a bad month for Airbus. The Air France plane that mysteriously crashed over the Atlantic earlier in June was an Airbus 330-200, a later version of the 300-series, which has been in production since the early 1990's. Some have suggested that the Airbus 300 design itself is flawed, and that the planes are extremely unstable in bad weather.

There is something to be said for this theory. A Yemeni aviation official has stated that Tuesday's plane crash occurred amid 71 mile per hour winds. The airplane apparently failed on a first approach and was circling back for a second landing attempt. Moreover, although inspectors still don't know what caused the Air France crash, they have released a statement that it happened in an area that was plagued by thunderstorms. According to some reports, the vertical stabilizer and rudder in the A310 have a history of failure, a shortcoming that could help account for the crash.

On the other hand, in over thirty years of use, only nine A310s have had a hull-loss incident; given that all of these occurred after 1992, it seems likely that wear and tear, not design, is the dominant factor in the failure of the planes.

The Yemeni plane's age and poor maintenance record were well documented. The A310 was first launched in 1978, and the last one rolled off the production line in 1997. Given their age and the fact that many of the planes have found their way into the air fleets of developing countries, it seems likely that maintenance would be a problem for many of the aircraft. In fact, according to French transport minister Dominique Bussereau, the Yemeni plane was prohibited from flying in French airspace because of a 2007 inspection that revealed "numerous faults."

Since its ban, the plane has, apparently, been used on runs from Yemen's capital to the Comoros Islands, which are located in the Indian ocean. Given the location of the run, French regulations were unenforceable. On the bright side, this policy has protected French citizens on the ground; unfortunately, however, it was of little help to the 66 French nationals who were on the plane.

Going over the list of A310 fatalities, it's clear that many of them could easily have been averted, either through better maintenance or better pilot training -- for example, in one incident, a Russian A310 crashed in Siberia after the pilot let his young son take the controls. The trouble is that maintenance and training are hard to come by in many developing countries. Ultimately, passing on aging planes to airlines in poorer countries will only increase the danger of air crashes.


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