Guesswork, not analysis, shadows EgyptAir mystery

When it comes to air crash investigations, curiosity tends to get the better of intellect

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Media organizations and aviation analysts have been quick to point the finger of blame at terrorists for the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, which disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday with 66 souls aboard.

Egypt’s transport minister, Russia’s spy chief and both presumptive candidates for this year’s US presidential election have also concluded that an act of terror is the most likely explanation for the disaster.

The rush to judgment by so many prominent voices – though uncharacteristic in the aftermath of a plane crash – is perhaps understandable in the prevailing security climate. It may also be that Egyptian, Russian and American officials have access to classified intelligence that bolsters the otherwise circumstantial evidence.

Nonetheless, to the extent that media outlets are regurgitating and developing the terrorism narrative, it is clear that conjecture now dominates the global coverage.

We do not yet know that Flight 804 was blown up by a bomb.

What we do know, admittedly, fails to rule out the terrorism theory. The aircraft disappeared from radar at cruising altitude in apparently good weather conditions – two factors that sharply reduce the likelihood of pilot error.

No distress signal was sent by the crew, suggesting that they were either physically unable to communicate with the ground – for any number of reasons, ranging from technical failure to bodily harm to the catastrophic immediateness of the event – or they were too preoccupied with emergency procedures.

Contradictory conclusions

Greek radar evidence indicating that the aircraft made a series of sharp turns in its final moments does not, by itself, bring us any closer to a conclusion. Some analysts interpret the apparent maneuvers as meaning that the pilots were in control of the plane – an unlikely scenario after an explosive decompression caused by a bomb – others that the radar data represents fragments of blown-up wreckage falling to the ground.

Seven automatic transmissions sent by the aircraft’s on-board ACARS system over a period of three minutes seem equally ambiguous. That data tells us that two smoke warnings were triggered near the cockpit before the crash – one in the lavatory behind the flight-deck; the other in the avionics bay underneath the flight-deck floor. These alerts were followed by three apparent heat warnings on the cockpit windows, and finally by two technical fault warnings – suggesting that flight-controls were becoming impaired.

It is hard to imagine that the myriad alarms did not stem from the same root cause, although at this stage there is nothing to demonstrate a causal link between any of them.

Media organizations have, nonetheless, interpreted the data as they see fit. The Telegraph concluded that “an internal explosion tore through the right side of the aircraft” after consulting an unnamed commercial pilot; while The Financial Times said the readings “seem at odds with the idea that the aircraft suffered the kind of sudden, catastrophic break-up normally associated with a bombing”.

Both narratives hinge on guesswork. “These are not messages that enable us to interpret anything,” stressed Sébastien Barthe, a spokesman for France’s BEA air accident investigation agency. “If there is smoke, it means that there is potentially a fire somewhere. But it doesn’t tell us where the fire is, and it doesn’t help us establish whether it is something malevolent or something technical.”

Those engaged in a guessing game about probable causes will, inevitably, be mindful of the terrorism matrices in both Cairo and Paris – the respective points of destination and departure for Flight 804. The Sinai-based affiliate of ISIS demonstrated its ability to strike passenger aircraft last October, when it bombed Metrojet Flight 9268, killing 224 mostly Russian holidaymakers.

That attack ushered in a new era for the post-9/11 world, culminating more than a decade of failed aircraft plots by Al Qaeda. The suicide-bomb attacks on Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February and on Brussels Airport in March have kept aviation security at the top of global news agendas since then.

Lack of concrete evidence

Insofar as media agencies need to provide context during the fact-finding stage of mass-casualty incidents, background information about ISIS, Egypt and France is helpful. But the terrorism theory deserves only the slimmest of column inches until concrete evidence emerges to support or negate its relevance.

It is particularly striking that no claim of responsibility has yet been issued by ISIS. As New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi noted on her Twitter feed, the group took credit for the Metrojet bombing within hours. Its silence after Flight 804 is deafening.

The desperation of press outlets and commentators to be at the front of developing stories – cementing their professional reputations in the process – can be a positive trait, driving news agendas forward and upholding the media’s role as a watchdog of democracy. When it comes to air crash investigations, however, curiosity tends to get the better of intellect. Imaginations run away with themselves, leaving news consumers bereft of relevant information and overwhelmed by speculation and fear.

I say again: we do not yet know what caused Flight 804 to crash into the Mediterranean Sea.

Until evidence to support any theory comes to light – an outcome that will only be advanced by the recovery of more wreckage – the story of Flight 804 is one of intolerable human tragedy; for those aboard, for their relatives, and for the already-reeling Egyptian tourism sector. There is nothing else to report.