Missing EgyptAir flight ‘may have been hit by terrorist attack’

The airline initially reported that wreckage from Flight MS804 had been found, but a senior Greek aviation official later said the debris collected was not from the Airbus A320.

Distraught family members of passengers aboard the EgyptAir plane that disappeared en route from Paris to Cairo make their way to a gathering point at Cairo airport. Khaled Desouki / AFP
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ABU DHABI // A missing EgyptAir jet carrying 66 people is thought to have crashed in the Mediterranean Sea early on Thursday, in what Egypt’s aviation minister said may have been a terrorist attack.

EgyptAir initially reported that wreckage from Flight MS804 had been found, but a senior Greek aviation official later said the debris collected was not from the Airbus A320.

“An assessment of the finds showed that they do not belong to an aircraft,” Athanassios Binis, head of Greece’s air accident investigation and aviation safety board, told state ERT TV.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi responded by demanding an “intensified search” for the plane.

Earlier, Egyptian aviation minister Sherif Fathi said the possibility of a terrorist attack was “stronger” than technical failure, but that he did not want to draw conclusions yet.

Thursday’s likely crash comes after a Russian passenger jet exploded over Egypt last October, killing all 224 people on board. ISIL claimed responsibility, saying the blast was caused by a bomb on board the plane.

The EgyptAir plane was flying at 37,000 feet when it disappeared from Greek radar screens while already in Egyptian airspace, about 280 kilometres away from the coast of Alexandria.

Greek defence minister Panos Kammenos said the jet swerved sharply twice – first making a 90-degree left turn and then a full 360-degree turn to the right – before dropping from an altitude of 38,000 to 15,000 feet. It dropped from sight at about 10,000 feet, he added.

Contact with the flight was lost at around 2.45am Egyptian time. It had been expected to reach Cairo airport at 3.15am.

Analysts told The National that in the initial hours following such an incident, every effort must be taken to find the wreckage, establish contact or connect with any survivors, and retrieve information from air traffic control and radar tapes to try and determine what events preceded the aircraft’s disappearance.

“It is too early to speculate at this stage,” said Paul Hayes, safety specialist at London-based aviation consultancy Ascend Worldwide. But, he added: “The fact that contact was lost suddenly without a distress call makes people think that there was a bomb on board.”

Mark Martin, the chief executive of Dubai’s Martin Consulting, an aviation consultancy, said that if the aircraft had broken up, exploded or fractured in mid-air then there would most likely be floating debris and parts of the aircraft strewn on the sea surface for miles around.

The flight had 56 passengers on board, including a child and two babies, and 10 crew members. The passengers included 30 Egyptians, 15 French, two Iraqis, and one citizen each from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Portugal, Sudan, Britain, Belgium, Canada and Chad.

The President Sheikh Khalifa offered his condolences to Mr El Sisi and French president Francois Hollande, as well as to the families of those on board the flight.

Earlier on Thursday, Egypt’s civil aviation ministry said the Egyptian military had received a distress signal from the plane at 4.26am, an apparent reference to an emergency locator transmitter, a device designed to automatically give out a signal in the event of a crash or sudden loss of altitude. The Egyptian army said later that it did not receive a distress call from the missing aircraft, suggesting that whatever event caused it to crash was sudden and brief.

Greek authorities said the EgyptAir pilot had “not mentioned a problem” in his final contact. The pilot “was in a good mood and gave thanks in Greek when authorised to exit the Athens flight information region”.

The controllers had last spoken to the pilot at 2.05am Egyptian time. He had more than 6,000 flying hours, including 2,101 flying Airbus 320 aircraft, while his co-pilot had 2,766 flying hours, according to EgyptAir.

EgyptAir made headlines in March when a flight from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked by a man who forced the plane to fly to Cyprus. The hijacker claimed to be wearing an explosive vest, which turned out to be fake, and all passengers and the crew were eventually freed. Cypriot authorities have described the hijacker as “psychologically unstable”.

Tourism in the Arab world’s most populous country was badly hit by last October’s incident in which a Russian Metrojet plane exploded in mid-air, with Egypt taking measures to secure its airports, such as the appointment of a foreign consultancy called Control Risks.

Mr Hayes said Thursday’s probable crash would have an “immediate impact” on EgyptAir’s operations.

“The information will impact EgyptAir, as people will be postponing or cancelling their flights,” said Mr Hayes. French airports could also be affected by enhanced security measures if the incident was suspected of being caused by terrorism, he said.

European airport security came under the radar in March after ISIL carried out suicide attacks at Brussels airport and a metro station in which 31 were killed and about 300 wounded.


* With agencies