The very day of the crash, the competent EU commissioner Antonio Tajani took the bull by the horns: “We need a worldwide blacklist for airlines,” he hastened to say – primarily, in all likelihood, to stave off embarrassing questions about the EU’s own control system. How come the plane was not allowed to enter French airspace, but could fly everywhere else in the EU? How come a European Commission committee had kept Yemenia Airways off the blacklist of unsafe airlines? And why did it count for nothing that the European aviation authority EASA had found such egregious failings in the airline’s maintenance company that it revoked its licence?
“It's simply beyond the pale,” fumes SPD (Social Democrat) MEP and aviation expert Ulrich Stockmann. Based on what he now knows, the Yemeni airline should have been blacklisted along with this plane.
The EU set up the list with plenty of irate energy back in 2005: it now contains over 200 airlines that have been banned from European airspace. Most of them, however, are small-scale African or Asian companies, some of which have never flown into the EU anyway. No major airlines have been anathematised yet.
The companies concerned do their utmost, not infrequently with powerful political backing, to prevent that from happening. That was the case when Yemenia came under scrutiny too, reveals a Brussels insider: the process had “a highly political prelude heavily involving individual EU members”.
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This inglorious saga begins on 4 July 2007 at the airport in Marseille. During a spot check, French aviation inspectors detect “category 3 defects” in the ill-fated airplane. “You get that sort of thing everyday,” says one of them. The plane had to leave the country immediately. The passengers remained in Marseille.
Alerted by the French authorities, the European Commission put Yemenia Airways on a watch list for all airlines that are found wanting, but that have been urged to make improvements before being blacklisted.
For the time being, it was not deemed necessary to issue an EU-wide ban on the defective aircraft. So 7O-ADJ had to avoid France from then on, but was still allowed to fly to every other airport in Europe. “That sort of thing clearly goes against the spirit of a uniform European safety system in civil aviation,” says Bundestag member Winfried Hermann of the Green Party.
So whilst the airline continued flight operations in Europe, the EU transport committee looked into whether Yemenia had remedied the notified maintenance defects. Finally, on 14 November 2008, it came to the conclusion that everything was right as rain at the Arab airline. The finding was based on the fact that the manufacturer, Airbus, had “audited the operation and maintenance divisions”. Apparently it did not occur to the EU that Airbus might be biased by its business ties to Yemenia.
The Yemenia Airways calamity also goes to show how little the various EU watchdogs see eye to eye themselves. While the Commission, where Member States’ officials call the shots, was satisfied with Yemenia’s servicing, the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) came to a completely different conclusion, diagnosing grave and systematic shortcomings in the Yemenia-owned maintenance firm. On 24 February 2009, EASA revoked the firm’s licence to service European aircraft. “We immediately reported that to the EU Commission,” says EASA spokesman Daniel Höltgen. That does not seem to have interested anyone in Brussels.
But being blacklisted does not necessarily mean an end to all European flights for the blackballed airlines. Angolan airline TAAG, for instance, still a member of the pariah set, simply leased some planes from another African country without further ado and continued flying to Lisbon six times a week after the interdiction – with its own flight number.
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