Airline defends Madrid take-off amid relatives’ anger

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The budget airline Spanair has defended its decision to clear a passenger jet for take-off despite aborting an earlier attempt because of a technical problem.

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The budget airline Spanair has defended its decision to clear a passenger jet for take-off despite aborting an earlier attempt because of a technical problem.

One hundred and fifty-three people died in yesterday’s air crash at Madrid’s Barajas airport. Witnesses said the plane’s left-hand engine burst into flame as it lifted off the runway and the aircraft broke up and crashed back to earth in flames. Only 19 people survived the disaster.

As relatives of those aboard the plane waited for news of their loved ones, their anger has focused on why Spanair allowed the pilot to take off despite the aircraft’s problems.

At a press conference today, Javier Mendoza, deputy director of operations for the company, said that the MD-82 had experienced overheating in an air intake valve before its original scheduled take-off, but he said that it was not clear whether that had anything to do with the crash.

Mr Mendoza said that the device, called an air intake probe, was reported to have been overheating in the front of the plane, under the cockpit. He says that technicians corrected the problem by “de-energising” the probe, which means turning it off.

“We followed the standards and procedures laid down in the aircraft’s safety manual,” he said

Relatives of the passengers were arriving today at a Madrid convention centre, which also used as a makeshift morgue after the al-Qaeda train bombing of March 2003. They hoped to identify the bodies, many of which were burnt beyond recognition.

“I’d kill the bastard who did this,” one man shouted at a television crew as he drove past the building.

Others asked why the plane was allowed to take off after aborting an initial attempt to get off the ground shortly before the accident. Spanair suggested that the pilot had complained about a faulty fuel gauge, but airport sources said that the plane might have suffered a mechanical problem.

It was also reported to have had other technical issues in recent days. Javier Fernandez Garcia, the flight coordinator at Madrid airport, told El Mundo newspaper: “This aircraft already had two flights cancelled because of problems.”

Priests and psychologists comforted distraught relatives overnight at Barajas airport and at the Las Palmas airport on Gran Canaria, where flight JK5022 was headed. The plane was operating on a codeshare with Lufthansa although only four Germans were aboard the flight, a Bavarian family whose fate remains unclear.

According to a list published by Spanair, the vast majority of the passengers were Spanish, but officials said that there were also passengers from Sweden, the Netherlands and Chile.

The plane was 15 years old, bought by Spanair from Korean Air in 1999, and was overhauled in January.

As three days of national mourning were declared, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Prime Minsiter, interrupted his holidays in southern Spain to fly to the scene. The Spanish Olympic Committee said the Spanish flag would fly at half mast in the Olympic village in Beijing.

Spanair, owned by the Scandinavian airline SAS, has been struggling with high fuel prices and tough competition. It announced it was laying off 1,062 staff and cutting routes after losing some £40 million in the first half of the year.

Air safety experts pointed out that Europe had been free of major plane disasters in recent years but take-offs still posed the greatest risk for flight crews.

The MD-82 should be able to lift off with only one engine, and pilots are trained for such eventualities, but one hypothesis that emerged today was that the plane’s thrust reversers, normally only used for when it touches down, could have been deployed. That would explain why the pilots were unable to control the craft despite reaching normal take-off speed.

In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand with the loss of 223 lives when the thrust reverser automatically went into operation.

“Automatic thrust reverser deployment will be one of the things that air crash investigators will be looking at,” said Dr Guy Gratton of the school of engineering and design at Brunel University in West London.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.