Controversy after leak of preliminary report into Spanair disaster

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The jet before it crashed

Spain's Ministry for Development has leaked a preliminary report into the crash of Spanair Flight 5022. The McDonnel-Douglas MD-82 that was lost at Madrid's Barajas Airport in Spanair's first and only fatal accident resulted in the deaths of 154. Controversy has come as a result of both the documents' contents and the fact that it was leaked at all.

According to the report, the airliner was defective for as yet undetermined reasons. The wing flaps failed to move into the required configuration for takeoff, and the alarm system that would normally alert pilots failed to activate, leaving the pilots unaware of the impending crash. The report goes on to note that after a similar accident befell Northwest Airlines Flight 255 in the United States in 1987, also with 154 dead, manufacturer McDonnel-Douglas (since merged with Boeing) told operators of MD-82s that they recommended pilots verified the alarm system was operational before every takeoff.

Spanair, however, did not follow this advice and instead trained pilots to check the system before the first takeoff each day and after each change in flight crew. The plane had been taken to Madrid from Barcelona earlier that day with the same flight crew, and therefore the pilots were not expected to check the alarm. File:Columnas de humo del accidente aéreo de Madrid-Barajas (2008).jpg

Smoke rises after the crash
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

Spanair's director of operations, Javier Muela, has responded by denial that the primary cause of the crash was the alarm's failure, as was implied by the report. He did confirm that the airline was not following the recommendation from the airframer, but in his defense said that "Spanair did not exist" at the time - "it was made in 87, Spanair was founded in 88," he said. He also said the airline's independent experts did not believe the reports claims about the incorrect flap position was accurate.

Typically, airliners come with documents detailing operating recommendations among other details, but newspapers have not confirmed that Spanair did in fact receive this information with any of its MD-82s.

Regardless of the report's accuracy, further controversy has arisen over its status, with a pilots' union enraged over the fact that it was ever made public. The Pilots College, COPAC, expressed an intention to bring legal action against the Ministry for Development. The union say the ministry broke protocols on both confidentiality and law.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues. It remains unclear why the systems on the aircraft failed, if they indeed did, although Spanish paper El Pais speculates it may be linked to a faulty temperature gauge on one of the engines, which caused the first attempted takeoff to be aborted and delayed the flight an hour. Javier Pérez, the judge in charge of the investigation, will examine the contents of the aircraft's flight recorders tomorrow. It is also reported that he is unlikely to call any witnesses to the disaster.

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This audio file was created from the text revision dated 2008-09-18 and may not reflect subsequent text edits to this report. (audio help)