Why did the Bek Air plane crash and how safe are Kazakh airlines?

Investigators will be looking at the possibility of ice on the wings, mechanical failure or pilot error

Kazakhstan plane crash: 12 people killed as Bek Air jet crashes into house near airport

Air crash investigators in Kazakhstan are trying to find out why a passenger airliner came down less than a minute after take-off from Almaty airport, killing at least 12 people.

Bek Air flight 2100 is believed to have been carrying 93 passengers and five crew. Its intended destination was the capital, Nur-Sultan.

These are the key questions so far.

What do we know about the airline and the aircraft involved?

Bek Air was set up 20 years ago, one of many new airlines created in the 1990s in the former Soviet Union. Its base is Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and it serves 10 airports in this vast country – which is 12 times the size of Britain.

The fleet consists of Fokker 100 aircraft, a relatively old Dutch design with two Rolls-Royce Tay engines mounted at the rear.

The plane that crashed was 23 years old and had flown for eight different airlines in that time.

Is the age of the aircraft significant?

Not necessarily. Many low-cost airlines begin with relatively old aircraft, because they are cheap to lease. There is no reason why this should be a risky strategy so long as the planes are maintained and flown well.

In the Canadian Arctic, some aircraft used for passenger services are over 40 years old (I recently flew on one that was built in 1974) while British Airways has two Jumbo jets that are 26 years old.

What will investigators be looking for?

At this stage any pronouncements are pure speculation. All one can do is outline the factors that investigators will consider. Many accidents involve a sequence of unusual or unexpected events, with no single factor entirely responsible.

The weather could be significant. The wind was light and the visibility was within operating limits, but according to a weather report 20 minutes before the crash, the temperature was -12C.

So the possible build-up of ice on the wings will be one area of investigation. The Fokker 100 is known to be susceptible to loss of lift if the wings are contaminated by ice.

A crash of the same aircraft type in 1993 in Skopje in present-day North Macedonia, in which 81 people died, happened shortly after take-off. The accident was blamed on the icing of the wings.

Having said that, in the depths of winter in Kazakhstan, there are very long-established procedures for de-icing.

Investigators will also be looking for evidence of mechanical failure of some sort, as well as the possibility of pilot error.

They will also consider human interference. While terrorism is virtually unknown in Kazakhstan, it cannot be ruled out at this stage.

Is it unusual that there were so many survivors?

No. Many aviation accidents are classed as “impact-survivable”.

Aircraft are engineered to maximise survivability, with seating built to withstand up to 16 times the force of gravity. That is why the safety briefing before a flight is so important. Crew explain vital information about how to minimise injury and evacuate the aircraft as swiftly as possible.

It bears repeating that passengers should check the location of the nearest emergency exits, both ahead and behind, and ensure seatbelts are securely fastened.

How is aviation safety in Kazakhstan rated internationally?

With the exception of the national carrier, Air Astana, which flies to destinations across Asia and Europe, there have been long-standing safety worries about Kazakh airlines.

Three years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) said a “Significant Safety Concern” had been addressed in Kazakhstan, but the US State Department is still worried about what it says are “serious and persistent lapses in the safety oversight of commercial air service on some Kazakhstan-registered airlines”.

The State Department says: “As a result, without prior approval, US government personnel are not permitted to travel on any Kazakh airline operating regularly scheduled flights except for Air Astana.”

In the most recent oversight check conducted by ICAO, Kazakhstan was rated well above global standards for regulating operations, airworthiness and air-traffic control, but substantially below average for organisation, aviation legislation and accident investigation.

How bad has 2019 been for plane crashes?

This latest tragedy comes at the end of a year that has seen the loss of another Boeing 737 Max on an Ethiopian Airlines flight in which 157 people died. (In October 2018, 189 people died in a 737 Max crash after leaving Jakarta, Indonesia). And in May this year, 41 people died aboard an Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet in Moscow, which caught fire shortly after landing at Sheremetyevo airport, having been struck by lightning.

But that is the sum total of accidents involving passenger jets in commercial service.

There have been two further tragedies involving passenger aircraft – one piston-engined, one turbo-prop – in 2019. In March, a Douglas DC-3 crashed in Colombia, with the loss of 14 passengers and crew. In November, a Dornier 228 crashed shortly after take-off from Goma in Democratic Congo, killing 19 people on board and 10 on the ground.

According to the United Nations, there are 154 road fatalities every hour worldwide – meaning that the death toll in the five aviation tragedies so far this year is significantly lower than in two hours on the roads globally.

What is the overall trend for aviation safety?

The air accident rate is extraordinarily low and declining still further with time, despite the increase in the amount of flying worldwide. The decade that is just ending is likely to be the safest in aviation history.

Safety experts will be concerned about the vow by the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, that “all those responsible [for the crash at Almaty] will be severely punished in accordance with the law”.

Aviation safety is constantly enhanced by studying previous incidents, and depends on a culture of openness rather than blame.​

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