'A crash was going to happen': Two accidents by same airline at Istanbul airport raise questions about flight safety

Borzou Daragahi
Turkish police guard the wreckage of a plane operated by Pegasus Airlines after it skidded off the runway: AP

The hard landings of two planes by the same airline at the same Istanbul airport in the space of a single month have raised questions about aviation safety in Europe’s largest city, a major transit hub for much of Eurasia.

On Wednesday, a Pegasus airlines flight arriving at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport slipped off the wet runway on landing, smashed into a wall, split into three pieces and burst into flames, killing three passengers on board and injuring almost every other one of the 179 of the crew members and other people aboard the Boeing 737-800.

The accident follows a 5 January incident in which another Pegasus airlines jet landing at the same airport during a rainy day also slipped off the runaway. No passengers or crew were harmed.

News of Wednesday’s crash dominated headlines and television broadcasts across Turkey, with many pundits criticising the authorities and the privately owned airline. The crash temporarily shut down Istanbul’s number two airport, located on the Asian side of the city.

The crash has prompted criticism about Turkey’s aviation policies, one year after the country closed down the storied Ataturk International Airport. In its place it opened what it billed as the world’s largest airport, along the Black Sea on the city’s northernmost edge - and despite the objections of some urban planning and aviation experts.

"The country is like an out of control train,” former pilot Bahadir Altan told pro-government CNN Turk, after the crash. “There should be more sense than just carrying out one project after the other."

Among those killed was Zehra Bilgi Kocar, a young dentist whose husband was forced to take a flight several days earlier.

“Everything happened in two or three seconds,” 36-year-old Yunus Elmaci, one of the passengers aboard the plane, told the DHA news agency, as he recovered from his injuries.

The accidents at Sabiha Gokcen come amid claims that the government is neglecting the airport in favour of the newly built Istanbul International Airport, which is the hub of the country’s flagship carrier Turkish Airlines.

CEO of Pegasus Airlines Mehmet Nane reacts as he speaks during a press conference on Thursday (AFP via Getty Images)

Expansion work at Sabiha Gokcen, which some aviation experts say is underutilised, has stalled as the new airport on the city’s European side struggles amid an economic downturn to maintain enough traffic to pay off the mega-contractors who built and operate the facility.

But others alleged that simple incompetence at the airport by the pilots may have led to the latest crash. Retired pilot Kazim Dikici, speaking on privately owned NTV television said the Pegasus jet should have never been approved to land as tailwind speeds had reached 25 knots,

"At this point the operation should be stopped and planes should be told that those who have fuel should wait and those who don't should divert to alternate airfields," he said, noting that two planes had aborted landings just before the accident.

"If I was in the tower, I would have made that plane abort its landing and plan its landing at another runway," former air traffic controller Ibrahim Ozcan said in a television interview.

"It was a mistake to leave it to the pilot," Mr Ozcan said. "It was obvious a crash was going to happen.”

Publicly traded Pegasus, Turkey’s number two airline, operates nearly 82 planes and emphasises no-frills flights across Turkey, the Middle East and Europe, including to London’s Stansted airport. Passengers often pay extra for meals and checked-in bags, while flight attendants and other crew often complain about low wages. At a press conference on Wednesday, Pegasus CEO Mehmet Nane was visibly shaken, tearing up as he spoke, but declining to take any questions.

“It is not easy to come here,” he said, according to a transcript of his prepared statement. “We will do whatever it takes to heal the wounds. This process is a difficult process for us, the families of those who lost their lives.”

He denied that the pilots took a chance by landing the flight. “If our pilots see risk, it is stated by regulations that they pass or be directed to other airports,” he said.

The previous incident in January, involving a Boeing 747 arriving from Sharjah, also took place during rough weather.

“I have never seen a storm like this in many years,” one user on the social media channel Eksi Sozluk wrote at the time. “The car was shuddering right to left and shifting lanes. Driving is very dangerous and trees are being knocked down.”

And a 13 January 2018 Pegasus airlines flight skidded off a wet runway runway while landing at the airport in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. No one aboard the Boeing 737-800 was injured, though the aircraft sustained substantial damage.