FlyDubai CEO Defends Decision to Land Plane in Bad Weather Before Fatal Crash

By and Henry Meyer | March 21, 2016

FlyDubai’s top executive said conditions for landing were appropriate when one of its flights crashed at a windy airport in southern Russia, even though three other carriers rerouted flights to other destinations.

“As far as the operation of the flight, the airport was open, it was good enough to operate and it was good enough to land, as per the authorities,” Ghaith Al Ghaith, chief executive officer of the Middle Eastern budget carrier, told reporters Sunday at a press conference in Dubai.

Ultimately, the pilot makes the final decision to land based on the best information available and in coordination with the authorities, Ghaith said. All FlyDubai aircraft operate with enough fuel to circle in the air or divert to another airport, he said, without specifying how much.

Investigators began work by examining the two flight recorders, known as black boxes, recovered after the jet broke apart while trying to land in gusty winds in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday, killing all 62 people on board. Flight FZ981, a Boeing Co. 737-800 with 55 passengers and seven crew, was making a repeat landing attempt in poor weather about 3:40 a.m. when it crashed and burst into flames.

Flights Divert

At about the same time, flights operated by Aeroflot PJSC , Czech Airlines and Turkish Airlines were due to land in Rostov-on-Don but opted to re-route, according to information from independent tracking service Flightradar24.com. Aeroflot made three attempts to land but both the Russian carrier and Czech Airlines diverted to Krasnodar, about 275 kilometers (171 miles) away, while Turkish Airlines returned to Istanbul.

“In this incident or any event, a pilot makes the decision to operate and man the flight on the best information that we have and its their call in coordination with the authorities, in this case it’s the tower that he’s communicating with, or any authority he was communicating with,” Ghaith said.

In Moscow, Russian, French and UAE experts who had access to the devices plan to finish preliminary work to assess the quality of the recoverable flight data by the end of Sunday, according to a website statement by the Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee. The IAC will issue a preliminary report within a month, Ismaeil Al Hosani, assistant director general for the Air Accident Investigation Sector at the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority, said in a statement.

‘Take Time’

“The investigation may take time due to the amount of required information on the aircraft, crew, and the operator, Rostov airport, air traffic control of Rostov airport, weather conditions and information obtained through interviews,” Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, Director General GCAA, said.

Deputy head of Interstate Aviation Committee, Sergei Zaiko, told Interfax the flight recorders are damaged but it’s possible to recover and analyze the data. That may start as early as Sunday, he said.

Human error, technical failure and bad weather are among possible causes under scrutiny, according to the Investigative Committee, the main Russian investigating authority. Rossiya-24 state television, citing a local weather service, said winds in Rostov-on-Don exceeded 20 meters per second (about 45 miles per hour) about the time of the accident.

Visibility Information

Air traffic controllers at the airport gave the FlyDubai pilots weather information, including that visibility was 3.5 kilometers at the time of the crash, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified official working in the investigation.

While authorities said the wing came in contact with the ground, Flightradar24 posted data suggesting that the approach was unusual even before the jet reached the airport.

Flightradar24.com showed the plane circled for about two hours after an initial landing attempt and then descended and slowed down before abruptly pulling up and accelerating at the last minute. The final Flightradar24 readings then showed the plane losing altitude and still gaining airspeed.

‘Well Experienced’

The pilots had previously flown to the Russian airport, Ghaith said. The pilot and co-pilot were “well experienced” and logged 5,900 and 5,700 flight hours respectively.

The airline intends to resume flights to Rostov-on-Don when the airport reopens, Ghaith said. The facility is expected to resume operations on Monday, Russian Transportation Minister Maxim Sokolov said on Sunday, Interfax reported. A group of representatives from FlyDubai arrived in the southern Russian city to take part in the investigation, it added. The identification of body parts found near the wreckage has begun, Sokolov said.

FlyDubai’s bookings haven’t been affected by the crash, Ghaith said.

FlyDubai is covered by insurance worth $500 million, Sokolov said during a news conference broadcast by Rossiya-24. The airline will arrange hardship payments of $20,000 per passenger to the families of those killed in the crash, according to an e-mailed statement from the company. Final compensation will be decided after the investigation, Ghaith said.

“The least of our worries is cost,” he said. “”Our focus now is on caring for the the families of victims and cooperating with the relevant authorities to discover the causes of this incident.”

FlyDubai, owned by the government of Dubai, is one of two no-frills airlines in the United Arab Emirates. It began operations in 2009 and has an all-Boeing fleet of 50 aircraft with a network of about 90 destinations.

–With assistance from Janet Ong, Torrey Clark, Kyunghee Park, Ann Koh and Yuliya Fedorinova.

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