ISTANBUL — Flights resumed at an Istanbul airport on Thursday, one day after a plane skidded off a runway and broke apart, killing three people and hurting 180. It was the airline’s second runway excursion at the airport in one month, stirring fears about safety at the city’s busy air hubs.
Flight PC2193 operated by discount carrier Pegasus Airlines made a rough landing at Sabiha Gokcen Airport on Istanbul’s Asian side in poor weather conditions including low visibility, strong winds and heavy rain. It failed to stop before hitting the end of the tarmac and fell 30 to 40 meters into a ditch by the side of a motorway.
The plane, traveling from the western city of Izmir, had 183 passengers and crew members on board, including 22 foreign nationals, said the Istanbul governor’s office. Four people were in serious condition, its statement read, while doctors reported that most of the injuries they were seeing were broken bones and head trauma.
Television footage showed the fuselage in three pieces, with the cockpit flipped upside down. Injured passengers crawled out of the wrecked plane, which briefly caught fire, and some had to wait an hour at the site before boarding buses. Workers were removing the wreckage on Thursday as police stood guard around the crash site.
Passenger Engin Demir told NTV news channel the plane had left Izmir a half-hour late and started shaking while it descended through thick cloud cover. A bolt of lightning struck near the aircraft while it was in the air, and within seconds of landing he heard an explosion. Panic broke out in the cabin after the crash as people were trapped by falling carry-on luggage, he said.
A prosecutor has opened an investigation into the two pilots and the cause of the crash. A preliminary report is not expected for another month, and a final report is unlikely until next year, TV news shows reported. Investigators from the United States, including Boeing, were due to arrive in Turkey, they said.
Pegasus chief executive Mehmet Tavfik Nane repeatedly broke down in tears during a press conference on Thursday. He said the black box had been retrieved and the airline was cooperating with civil aviation authorities. “These types of incidents do not stem from a single cause but arise from a combination of factors. We pledge to implement any [recommendations for] enhancement and improvement that emerge during the crash investigation,” he said.
Turkey’s flag carrier Turkish Airlines and Pegasus both ranked 7/7 for flight safety by AirlineRatings. Nane said his company scores high on EU standards and that its fleet of 83 planes is young. But the carrier has suffered a spate of accidents recently. A Pegasus flight careened off the runway at Sabiha Gokcen in January and in 2018, one of its planes overshot its landing in the Black Sea town of Trabzon, coming to a halt on a precipice above the water. No one was hurt in those incidents. All three planes were Boeing 737s.
Pegasus, which is run by Turkish billionaire Sevket Sabanci and his family, is Europe’s 10th biggest airline by passengers and flies to more than 100 destinations. Its air hub is Sabiha Gokcen, which handled 35.5 million passengers last year, a fivefold increase since 2009 but still below its capacity of 41 million.
Nane said Pegasus pilots are all told to go around if they see any risk in landing. Two planes immediately prior to Flight PC2193 did just that as tail winds reached 37 knots per hour, aviation experts told NTV News. Water on the runway may have also contributed to the crash, they said. One expert complained that Turkish pilots do not receive adequate training.
The international airport named for the world’s first female fighter pilot saw a boost in its numbers after the closure last year of the city’s main Ataturk Airport as many travelers avoided the sprawling Istanbul Airport, located some 20 miles outside of the city on the foggy Black Sea coast.
Some critics said planes should be allowed to use Ataturk when necessary, but the site is now reserved for cargo planes, private jets and dignitaries. The government shut Ataturk, located on the Marmara Sea, to move operations to the new airport with the hope it will eventually be the world’s busiest.
But concerns have mounted that conditions at Istanbul Airport are not optimal, including flight paths in migratory bird corridors that may have led to bird strikes. Dangerous wind shear has forced a record number of go-arounds, delays and diversions. Transport Minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan acknowledged in August that seasonal weather factors had forced 173 go-arounds in the airport’s first 76 days of operations.
Critics say the $11 billion airport is emblematic of an unsustainable building boom upon which the government relies to keep gross domestic product growing and companies that support it in the black. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan credits large infrastructure projects including bridges, roads and hospitals for improving Turks’ lives during his 17 years in power when the economy tripled in size.
He is now planning to build Canal Istanbul, a $13 billion artificial waterway west of Istanbul for shipping traffic, and new towns along its path for hundreds of thousands of people. Environmentalists worry it will spell an ecological catastrophe for Europe’s largest city.
Sabiha Gokcen’s operators have promised a new runway for a dozen years and held a second tender for its construction in 2016 but completion has now overrun the three-year contracted period. Just one day before the latest crash, Turhan said the single strip was “very tired” and required daily maintenance, prompting regulators to turn down requests to add new flights at the airport.
It has been a painful few weeks in Turkey as successive disasters strike. Two deadly avalanches in the eastern province of Van killed 41 people on Wednesday, with most of the victims perishing while they were trying to rescue those buried in the first deluge. And a powerful earthquake rocked the eastern province of Elazig last month, killing 41 people.
Authorities opened investigations into 50 people in connection with their social media posts about the earthquake. Criticism of the government’s response to crises is not tolerated by the pro-government media, and apparently discussion of the causes may not be not either. A pilot speaking by phone with CNN Turk after the Pegasus crash warned that Turkey’s relentless push for growth and hastily built infrastructure may be undermining safety before the broadcaster abruptly cut him off.
“As a nation, let’s pause for a moment. We are opening a [new] airport and a canal. The country is like a truck with failed brakes,” said Bahadir Altan. “People going to rescue others from an avalanche are dying. The country and Istanbul are awaiting an earthquake. Let’s prepare for this. Rather than growth and producing project upon project, we need common sense,” he added before the line went dead.
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