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Iran’s regulators seen as factor in crashes

When the managing director of a small, trouble-prone Iranian airline won official permission in March to lease a couple of aging Russian-made airplanes, the country’s small circle of aviation professionals gossiped about the strings he must have pulled to get the government’s approval.

And when one of the planes burst aflame on the runway in late July, killing the executive, Mehdi Dadpei, his son and 14 others, few in the industry were surprised.

“Aria was famous for not adhering to safety standards for years,” said an Iranian aviation industry insider, who spoke extensively to The Times on condition of anonymity. “Every time they had a problem, the managing director knew someone high up in the government who made it possible for Aria to continue as before.”

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In the wake of the crash, a government official said the airline’s permission to operate had been revoked.

Iranian officials have long accused the West of playing politics with people’s lives by imposing sanctions that prevent upgrades to the country’s aging aircraft fleet. On Saturday, an Iranian aviation official called the sanctions an “act against humanity.” But the aviation insider charged that authorities in Tehran were also to blame for a recent spate of deadly crashes.

The airline industry official, who asked that his name and his company not be published out of fear for his personal and job security, accused politically motivated regulators of failing to adequately inspect and publicize aviation accidents, and of bending rules to accommodate well-connected airlines.

“It is apparent that many of our safety concerns and problems are due to U.S. sanctions,” said the official, whose name and title The Times independently verified. “But when you look closer, you will note that mismanagement on behalf of the Iran civil aviation authorities is to blame for a majority of what is so sadly taking place.”

He provided a rare insider view on a contentious issue between Iran and the West, as well as the inner workings of a key industry in an opaque country.

Iran has experienced 14 fatal civilian and military aviation accidents since 2000, a figure experts describe as one of the worst in the world. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office in 2005, there have been at least seven fatal accidents.

“To have fatal accidents at 1.5 a year means Iran is experiencing 10% of world [aircraft hull] losses,” said a London-based aviation accident investigator who probes crashes all over the world. He spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s well above the average.”

In addition to the two major crashes that killed 184 people in July, a series of smaller aviation incidents over the last few weeks has raised concerns about the state of Iran’s civil aviation. On Sept. 6, a Russian-made Tupolev-154 jet belonging to an unnamed airline made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff in Tehran because of unspecified technical problems, an official told state television.

Five days earlier, an Iran Air training plane crashed, seriously injuring the pilot, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported, while another training plane crashed Aug. 15, killing two.

“Overall, every week we hear of incidents that are far above the norms of the industry,” the airline industry insider said. “They keep it secret.”

In terms of safety, the Iranian airline executive said, the aviation industry is “at the lowest point” in its recent history. Human error, mostly by pilots, and not mechanical problems, was behind most of Iran’s aviation troubles.

The problems are exacerbated by regulators at the country’s Civil Aviation Organization who don’t aggressively investigate accidents or make the results of inquiries available to the public or to airlines, and decline to blacklist incompetent pilots or politically connected airlines.

“There’s a new approach to air safety worldwide based on openness, reporting, predicting incidents and sharing information,” said Philip Butterworth-Hayes, editor of the British-based Air Traffic Management Insight, a biweekly newsletter. “None of those figure very strongly in Iran’s civil aviation culture.”

The Aria Air crash illustrated the extent to which politics has begun creeping into industry. Because of high demand for air travel, rules are bent to accommodate airlines with safety lapses, the insider charged.

Regulators previously pulled the airline’s license “as its fleet was outdated,” but allowed it to start business again under a slightly different name, Mohammad Ali Ilkhani, acting chief of the CAO, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency after the crash.

Ilkhani said Aria Air’s permission to operate had again been revoked.

“The norm is who you know and how high in the government is your backup,” the insider said.

Poor government policies also put pressure on Iranian airlines to cut corners that affect safety, he said.

Even as operating costs increase, government regulators keep domestic airfares artificially low to please the public, and pressure airlines to operate money-losing flights to small towns and secondary airports with few passengers to “keep the parliament members from that area happy,” said the industry insider.

“Authorities’ indifference to repeated requests by airline firms to raise ticket prices has had an effect on recent plane crashes,” Mehdi Aliyari, the head of the professional association of air transport companies, told the newspaper Jomhouri Eslami in late July. “When the government artificially keeps the price of air tickets fixed and airline companies’ warnings on raising ticket prices are ignored, air accidents are not implausible.”

Some Iranian officials say the country increasingly relies on Russian planes because U.S. sanctions on Iran forbid it to buy new Boeing or Airbus aircraft. Both the Aria Air crash and the July 15 crash of a Caspian Airlines flight that killed all 168 people aboard involved Russian planes.

Aviation professionals said they didn’t think Russian planes were inherently any worse than the Boeing and Airbus planes used in the West.

“If they’re flown properly, they’re like tanks,” Butterworth-Hayes said. “They’re incredibly robust airplanes.”

But others said the post-sales training, support and parts provided for Russian aircraft were far weaker than those for Western planes.

“When an airline is operating Russian-type aircraft, the safety level of its operations will definitely suffer because the operations and technical safety will not be as good as an airline with an all-Western fleet,” the Iranian airline source said.

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daragahi@latimes.com


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