Crashes Without Consequences
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
20 Jul 2010 23:57
On July 15, 2009, Caspian Airlines flight 7908, a Tupelov Tu-154M, departed from Imam Khomeini International Airport for Yerevan only to lose its engines 16 minutes later. In six seconds, it lost the altitude it had gained in six minutes. All on board were killed immediately. Their bodies were incinerated and the ashes scattered over a six-mile radius. No one was left to tell the world of the agonies of those final seconds. One hundred and sixty-eight people, many of them members of Iran's Armenian community, died. Last weekend, their families gathered at the site of the crash where their ashes now rest to mourn their loss, to say a few words of prayer, and to leave some flowers.
Nine days later, on July 24, Aria Airlines flight 1525, an Ilyushin Il-62M, touched down at Mashhad International Airport in the northeast of Iran. The pilot had already missed one third of the runway and landed at a speed faster than permitted by safety regulations. He decided to take off and go around, losing precious seconds to stop the aircraft. It went off the runway and hit a wall separating the airport from the farms surrounding it. Seventeen were killed on impact, among them Aria Airlines' CEO, the flight crew, and three passengers.
In the aftermath of these crashes, Iranian authorities grounded Aria's Il-62 airplanes while permitting Caspian to operate its Tu-154s without any interruption. The Iranian Civil Aviation Organization ruled that the Aria accident was due to pilot error and poor performance. In the case of the Caspian tragedy, the true cause of engine failure remains unknown. There was no official report released, even though the parts were sent to Russia for further analysis. Many analysts speculate that Iranian officials might be interested more in protecting Caspian, a well-connected airline, than in disclosing the true cause of its deadly crash.
In both cases, Iranian authorities asserted that the airplanes were fully inspected and air worthy. Nobody even publicly suggested that it was necessary to investigate official procedures for aircraft inspection or review the Mashhad air control mechanisms and procedures. There was no official who dared admit that Russian aircraft are operating in Iran only because sanctions deny Iranians access to Western aviation technology. The fault, as always, was either the pilot's or the airline's. Authorities washed their hands of any hint of responsibility. Addressing a session of the Majles (parliament), Minister of Roads and Transportation Hamid Behbahani blatantly declared, "This airline thing is none of my business!" Even a third crash last winter, again in Mashhad, did not motivate authorities to examine the nation's air control systems and aviation standards. Their only public commitment has been to announce an end to Russian-manufactured aircraft operations in Iran by summer 2010.
Still, many analysts and observers of the Iranian commercial aviation industry do not believe even this will be achieved. The recent U.N. Security Council sanctions have severed any technical support for the Western-manufactured components of the Iranian fleet. Even companies such as Fokker, which had been doing business with several Iranian airlines over the past 30 years, are now withdrawing from the market, leaving their clients bewildered by technical challenges.
Acquiring recently manufactured Western aircraft used to be difficult in Iran. Now it is almost impossible. Even if a private airline succeeds in securing a decent airplane, there is no guarantee that the necessary maintenance and technical support services will be provided without interruption. Thus it seems that the Russian Tu-154 is the only option available to Iranian airlines. Maybe for this very reason, the Iran Civil Aviation Organization has already unofficially notified air carriers that they may continue to operate their Tu-154s after the announced deadline for their withdrawal.
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