Q: The crash of a Flash Airlines jet off the Egyptian coast in early January is being blamed on mechanical problems. An earlier Flash charter reportedly suffered an engine fire, and a passenger was quoted: “To say that the plane was decrepit would be a compliment.” This seems to discredit your insistence that third-world airlines are trustworthy and reliable.
First and foremost, nobody knows why the Flash Airlines 737 went down. It crashed after takeoff from Sharm-el-Sheik, a Red Sea resort popular with SCUBA fans, and sank into water more than 2,000 feet deep. (There’s an irony in there somewhere; many of the passengers were divers.) Rare is the accident whose cause or causes, primary or secondary, are determined in less than 30 days. Conjecture and rumor will surface, if you’ll grant me the pun, but you can expect many months before determinations are official. Until then, “mechanical problems” can refer to almost anything.
The vast majority of foreign and lesser-known airlines are trustworthy and reliable. I’ve never claimed that all are equally tight-shipped; only that most are perfectly safe, and some remarkably so. I’ll withhold final judgment on Flash, though evidence indicates they were likely on that lower rung of the safety ladder. The company’s name alone, I’ll admit, is something less than professional sounding. More than a year before the Red Sea disaster, Flash was banned from flying to Switzerland by that country’s authorities. For a commercial passenger line, such drastic measures are highly unusual. That doesn’t deem the carrier “dangerous,” necessarily, but obviously it was not up to standard. Understanding the difference is being able to grasp the statistical hairsplitting of air safety data.
Importantly too, Flash Airlines is a tiny charter outfit with, at this point, only a single 737 to its name. It is not to be categorized with the likes of a national flag carrier, be it EgyptAir or whomever. The national airlines of Syria and Tunisia, since we’re in the neighborhood, are on the list of airlines that have gone fatality free for more than 30 years running.
As for the eyewitness report, the superficial appearance of an aircraft isn’t always a fair gauge of its upkeep. This is especially true with respect to interiors. Seats, bins, galleys and panels are routinely swapped out, and while threadbare cushions or stained carpeting aren’t exactly points of pride, neither are they tell-tale signs of faulty maintenance. Flash’s 737s were, at the time of that account, only a decade old, which is adolescence for a jetliner.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.