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A passenger jet operated by Middle Eastern budget carrier FlyDubai broke apart while trying to land in high winds in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday morning, killing all 62 people on board.
Flight FZ981 was making a repeat landing attempt in poor weather at about 3:40 a.m. when it crashed and burst into flames, the Rostov branch of the Emergencies Ministry said on its website. The Boeing Co. 737-800 was carrying 55 passengers and seven crew when it came down about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Moscow.
Human error, technical failure and difficult weather conditions are among possible causes under scrutiny, according to the Investigative Committee, the main Russian investigating authority. Rossiya-24 state television, citing a local weather service, said winds in Rostov-on-Don exceeded 20 meters per second (about 45 miles per hour) about the time of the accident.
“As far as we know, the airport was open and we were good to operate,” FlyDubai Chief Executive Officer Ghaith Al Ghaith said at a news conference in Dubai. “This investigation will take time until all facts are collected. Before we commit and say anything, we have to be sure. If weather wasn’t suitable, the plane wouldn’t have flown.”
While authorities said the wing came in contact with the ground, independent tracking service Flightradar24.com posted data suggesting that the approach was unusual even before the jet reached the airport.
Flightradar24 showed the plane circled for about two hours after an initial landing attempt — consistent with a report by Rossiya-24 — and then descended and slowed down before abruptly pulling up and accelerating at the last minute. The final Flightradar24 readings then showed the plane losing altitude and still gaining airspeed. FlyDubai said both flight recorders, the plane’s so-called black boxes, have been recovered. They have been sent to Moscow, where they may be analyzed as early as Sunday depending on their condition, the Interfax news service reported, citing an unidentified emergency official.
Two hours is in general an unusually long time for circling, Ismail Al Hosani, a representative of the U.A.E.’s civil aviation body, said at the Dubai news conference, in response to speculation that the plane had been delaying its final approach.
A preliminary list showed 33 women, 18 men, four children and seven crew on the single-aisle 737, which Ghaith said was inspected on Jan. 21. The passengers were mostly Russian, with Ukrainian, Uzbek and Indian nationals also on board. The Cypriot pilot and Spanish co-pilot were “quite experienced,” having logged more than 11,000 flying hours between them, Ghaith said. The pilot was identified as Aristos Sokratous, Ria Novosti reported, citing transportation prosecutors.
Bad weather “may have resulted in an unstable approach situation leading the crew to initiate a go-around, execute a missed approach procedure and review the options to either divert or attempt another landing,” said Mark Martin, an aviation analyst and founder of Dubai-based Martin Consultancy.
Rostov-on-Don Airport is considered a straightforward airport to land at, Viktor Gorbachev, head of a Russian airport lobby group, said in an interview with Rossiya-24. The only danger could have been a crosswind, he said. There were several airports within 30 minutes flying time that could have been used instead, Gorbachev said.
“Holding a plane for whatever convenience, weather or slots, is a judgment call at the moment,” FlyDubai’s Ghaith said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve not seen anything that would suggest that an alternative airport was on the cards, but again we’d not know until all the information is put in front of us.”
Rostov-on-Don airport is expected to reopen on Monday morning, Russian Transportation Minister Maxim Sokolov said Sunday, Interfax reported. A group of representatives from FlyDubai have arrived in the southern Russian city to take part in the investigation, it added. The identification of body parts found near the wreckage has begun, Sokolov said.
FlyDubai is covered by insurance worth $500 million, Sokolov said during a news conference broadcast by Rossiya-24. The airline will arrange hardship payments of $20,000 per passenger to the families of those killed in the crash, according to an e-mailed statement from the company.
Rostov-on-Don Airport, near the Black Sea, not far from the border with Ukraine in the south of the country, is operated by a unit of billionaire Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group. It has two runways and serves more than 2 million passengers per year on domestic and international flights.
In between the FlyDubai jet’s first attempt to land and the crash, another plane made three landing efforts and then diverted, FlightRadar 24, which tracks airline movements, said in a Twitter posting.
“Diversion is a judgment call,” Ghaith said in a statement.
Boeing is aware of the incident and is gathering further details, the planemaker said in an e-mailed statement. The 737 is the workhorse of the global airline fleet, and the model is Boeing’s biggest source of profit.
The United Arab Emirates’ civil aviation authority has sent representatives and advisers to work closely with the Russian authorities to conduct the investigation under international standards, Saif Mohamad Al Suwaidi, director-general of the regulatory body, said.
FlyDubai, owned by the government of Dubai, is one of two no-frills airlines in the United Arab Emirates. It began operations in 2009 and has an all-Boeing fleet of 50 aircraft with a network of about 90 destinations.
The year 2015 was pronounced one of the safest years for airlines globally by the International Air Transport Association. The number of fatal accidents fell by two thirds last year, excluding more than 300 deaths resulting from a pilot suicide and possible terror attack.
–With assistance from Janet Ong, Torrey Clark, Kyunghee Park and Ann Koh.
This article was written by Yuliya Fedorinova and Deena Kamel Yousef from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.