May 12, 2010 / 1:45 PM / 8 years ago

Libya crash plane passed European spot-checks

* Libyan airliner subject to routine checks

* European aviation safety agency seeks wider powers

By Tim Hepher

PARIS, May 12 (Reuters) - European authorities have carried out regular on-the-spot inspections of Afriqiyah aircraft — including the Airbus jetliner which crashed on Wednesday — without reporting significant problems, safety officials said.

The checks include three recent inspections carried out on the crashed plane, an almost brand-new Airbus A330 EAD.PA.

Libyan officials said the plane operated by local airline Afriqiyah had crashed while attempting to land at Tripoli, killing 103 passengers and crew on Wednesday [ID:nLDE64B0MI].

Afriqiyah is not on a European blacklist of airlines considered unsafe but is subject to routine checks on foreign carriers carried out under an EU-sponsored safety scheme known as Safety Assessment for Foreign Aircraft programme (SAFA).

“Afriqiyah has been inspected in European member states under the SAFA programme with no significant findings,” said Daniel Hoeltgen, chief spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

He warned not to speculate about the causes of the accident.

A safety official told Reuters the plane which crashed, an A330-200 which had been in service for eight months, had been inspected three times in Paris by France’s DGAC aviation agency.

France’s BEA crash investigation board sent experts to Tripoli on Wednesday and EASA, which is responsible for approving Airbus designs, said it was offering assistance.

SAFETY POWERS

Afriqiyah began operations in 2001 and has a fleet of 11 Airbus jets including the crashed plane. It is serves seven European destinations as well as Africa and the Middle East.

The crashed aircraft, powered by General Electric (GE.N) engines, left the Airbus factory in September. The A330-200 variant involved in the crash is designed to carry 253 people.

It had made a total of just 420 flights, according to the planemaker, part of European aerospace group EADS EAD.PA.

“The aircraft seems to have undershot and impacted the ground just short of the runway,” said Paul Hayes, director of safety at aviation consultancy Ascend.

European inspections — which may include pilot licences, safety equipment, cargo and the technical -condition of a plane — cover planes from many third countries including Libya.

EASA wants increased powers to approve foreign airlines operating into the European Union, saying current ramp inspections are pointers but no guarantee to airworthiness.

“We don’t have that power and think it is necessary,” Hoeltgen said.

The doomed plane was reportedly due to fly on to London Gatwick. Afriqiyah also operates services to Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy and last year announced plans to add flights to London Heathrow, Manchester and New York.

The crash is the second-worst involving an Airbus A330 after the loss of an Air France (AIRF.PA) A330-200 jet over the Atlantic on June 1 last year, killing all 228 people on board.

Its sudden disappearance has never been fully explained but it happened in apparently very different circumstances, at high altitude in a violent equatorial storm. Initial investigations focused on possible icing of the aircraft’s speed sensors.

France is still combing the ocean bed for the aircraft’s black box flight recorders and said last week it had narrowed the search area after reviewing sonar data [ID:nLDE64519L]. (Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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