and SIMON CALDER
An unauthorised charter flight, carrying German tourists home from the Caribbean, plunged into shark-infested waters off the Dominican Republic yesterday, killing all 189 people aboard.
Last night the cause of the crash was still a mystery. But German authorities said that the aircraft had been switched at the last minute and did not have their permission for the trip - raising broader questions about airline safety.
Aircraft and boats searching the waters off the Dominican Republic's north coast yesterday found bodies, empty life-rafts and debris scattered over two square miles. Most of the passengers on the plane, bound for Frankfurt and Berlin, were German holidaymakers, The crew were mainly Turkish. At least100 bodies were recovered - some of them mangled by sharks.
The plane apparently sank quickly but reports of empty, inflated life- rafts floating among the debris suggested some passengers may have escaped, only to be tossed to the sharks by stormy winds and 8ft waves.
The aircraft was a Boeing 757, the second to be lost within two months; an American Airlines jet crashed on the approach to Cali in Colombia in January. The 757 is well-regarded and widely used by UK airlines.
There were doubts last night about the way the flight was organised. Bonn said the 757 had no formal permission to land in Germany. The Dominican Republic's charter airline, Alas Nacionales, had chartered the aircraft from Birgen Air of Turkey, but only decided to use it at the last moment. Alas was shut down temporarily in 1993 after safety failures.
German pilots raised the possibility that a cut-price package deal had led to reduced safety standards. "We were almost waiting for such a crash," said the German airline pilots' association, Cockpit.
A spokesman for Hamburg-based Oeger Tours said the airline switched planes from a planned Boeing 767 to a Boeing 757 shortly before take-off, because the 767's hydraulic pump was not functioning properly. But a spokeswoman at Schoenefeld airport in Berlin, said a smaller plane was found as the flight was underbooked.
The practice among tour operators of buying in aircraft and crews from third countries is widespread, and British holidaymakers could find themselves travelling on aircraft leased from little-known airlines this summer. Britain's leading charter airlines - such as Britannia and Air 2000 - operate well-maintained aircraft. But some other operators do not finalise the aircraft to be used until close to the departure date.
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