Over the last several years boarding a domestic flight in Iran has become like playing Russian roulette.
Since 2002 there have been nine fatal air crashes, with as many 302 killed in a single flight, and a combined death toll of nearly 700. Some of these flights were military transports, while some were commercial flights with soldiers or Revolutionary Guardsmen on board, and others purely commercial.
Each of these flights was in Iranian air space, by no means hostile territory. So who or what is to blame for these tragic endings to seemingly regular flights?
“The maintenance of the aircraft themselves is a key component,” suggests Philip Butterworth-Hayes, consultant editor at Jane’s Airport Review. “The operation of the aircraft within the air traffic control system is the other thing.”
The maintenance of the aircraft could certainly be an issue.
“The fact is Iran is a country which has been subjected to sanctions for the better part of 30 years. If you don’t have free access to regular trading with the most experienced parts of the world in civil aviation safety, it stands to reason that you won’t have the best equipment available to you,” says David Kaminski-Morrow, deputy news editor of Flight International Magazine.
Some Iranian officials have expressed a similar but more acutely placed sentiment. Managing director of Iran national carrier, Iran Air, Davoud Keshavarzian told the official Iranian news agency IRNA: “Sanctions prevent Iran from purchasing aircraft, even if only 10 percent of the parts are US-made.”
Whether or not the US makes it extremely difficult, which they likely do, for Iran to acquire airplane equipment, placing blame on America does not bring back those who perished in the crashes. Furthermore, it must be considered irresponsible to put an aircraft carrying a nation’s military personnel and citizens in the air when the managing director of the national carrier feels he cannot adequately acquire the equipment necessary to fly safely.
Butterworth-Hayes strongly disagrees with Keshavarzian’s point of view.
“The United States is not the only supplier of parts. Europe supplies just as many airplanes now as the US does. A lot of Iran’s infrastructure is based on Russian equipment and Russian equipment can be flown [in] just as safely as American or European equipment. So to blame America is not feasible,” he says.
Explains Kaminski-Morrow: “They have to go through other channels. It makes it more difficult. The Iranians are not going to fly completely dilapidated aircraft.”
The fact that Iranian officials have blamed America for some of their aviation problems raises an interesting point.
“The issue of politics and aviation safety is a very problematic one,” insists Butterworth-Hayes. “In terms of civil aviation safety the political dimension should play no part whatsoever.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was created in an attempt to elevate civilian safety above the political spectrum and implement principles, procedures and systems for air navigation and safe international civil transport.
All countries that are part of the ICAO – and by default all of their air carriers, Iran included – must abide by the regulations in place as a minimum standard for safety. However, while the ICAO oversees civil aviation, for military aviation the safety regulations are entirely up to the individual country.
The situation becomes complicated for a company like Saha Airline Services, an airline that is owned by the Iranian Air Force but also has domestic civilian flights.
One of Saha’s three Boeing 707s, a plane which is made for military transport, had a gear or tire failure upon landing and ultimately crashed at the end of the runway, killing two passengers.
Saha is one of the few airlines in the world that uses the Boeing 707 for civilian transport. As a subsidiary of the Iranian Air Force but carrying civilians, it is intriguing as to which set of safety regulations are followed – ICAO or air force standards.
“You must look at the international statistics. From an international statistical point of view there does seem to be a much greater prevalence of military personnel being involved in crashes than civil transport,” says Butterworth-Hayes.
“This is a global phenomenon. A lot of it is to do with the type of airplanes being flown, and the fact that the military does not need to abide by ICAO regulations.”
If equipment can be acquired and safety regulations followed, regardless of sanctions, then clearly there may be another factor at play, possibly foul play.
On February 19, 2003, an Iranian Ilyushin-76 carrying 302 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards crashed into the side of a mountain killing everyone on board. The government did not launch an investigation into the crash, merely citing bad weather, and actually called off a search for the black box due to bad weather.
The Iranian government later revised the number of casualties to 275. However, the Iranian Ilyushin-76 has a maximum capacity of about 140 passengers, so where did all those extra passengers come from? Perhaps the crash had nothing to do with bad weather and the plane was overloaded?
Regardless of whether foul play was involved, or simply not adhering to safe flying regulations, it does not matter what has caused plane crashes in the past, Butterworth-Hayes says.
“Transparency and openness and global standards are key; there shouldn’t be any aircraft crashes in the world. We know so much about aviation now; there should not be one aviation crash.”