Reporter's Notebook: Afghan Air Disaster — Not If, But When

Kabul International Airport

KABUL, Afghanistan — Four days after a Kam Air 737 dropped off radar, NATO soldiers finally reached the mountain top crash site. They found human remains but saw no sign of survivors, which makes it the worst air disaster in a country coping with neglected and antiquated aviation systems.

But if anything, this crash is not a surprise.

The plane, carrying 104 people including at least 20 foreigners, went missing after it was declined clearance to land at Kabul International Airport last Thursday afternoon during a snowstorm. Six passengers were Americans, three working for an aid organization helping to improve community health systems.

This winter, Afghanistan has seen the most snowfall in 10 years. One minister even told me that some Afghans believe God is rewarding them for their peaceful efforts. More snow is good news for this country facing a seven-year drought but bad news for a civil aviation industry trying to find its footing.

Many of the thousands of foreigners living and working in Afghanistan have been talking about air safety for some time now. It was always a question of when something horrible was going to happen, not if.

The concerns over air safety are so severe that many international organizations forbid their staff from flying indigenous airlines. U.S. government workers are not allowed to fly Kam Air or Ariana Airlines, the national flag carrier. The U.S. embassy here even dissuades American citizens from flying them. This was all well before Thursday’s disaster.

Harrowing Stories

For months, stories swirled within the Kabul international community of struggled approaches and hold-your-breath landings. Kabul sits on a high plateau and is ringed by mountains, making it a tough landing even in perfect conditions and leaving little room for error.

As the son of a 35-year airline veteran and the brother of a former U.S. Navy pilot cum airline pilot, planes and air travel are in my blood.

I have several buddies here in Afghanistan who fly for the United Nations airline and charter companies used by aid workers and international organizations. They love the challenge of landing at some of the tough airports and remote landing strips, but what scares them the most are factors out of their control — sharing the same airspace with poorly trained pilots and under-serviced equipment.

Stories of cracked cockpit windshields and pilots passing around a hat to passengers for fuel money brought nervous laughter at dinner parties but after this weekend they bring anxiety.

A good friend of mine met his girlfriend by going through a harrowing Ariana Airlines flight together last year. Despite the romantic fact that an Ariana flight brought them together, they now only take U.N. flights.

As told to a foreign passenger by an Ariana Airlines employee: “Near misses don’t count, because nothing bad happened.”

On Jan. 25, the U.S. government gave the Afghan Ministry of Transportation $300,000 to help improve air safety. The grant will “contribute to improved aviation safety and security.”

Two international airlines, one of them a start-up, were to launch direct air service between Afghanistan and Europe. With much pre-inaugural flight publicity, neither had a single flight out of Kabul. One attributed its pullout to improper conduct by its partners including Ariana Airlines, and the other specifically stated that flying into Kabul would “disregard the safety of the crew and traveling public.”

No Sign of Terrorism

All early indications discounted any terrorist hand in the Kam Air crash.

In fact, a Taliban spokesman, infamous for calls to news agencies claiming responsibility for bombings or attacks on coalition and Afghan forces, came out over the weekend saying that the Taliban had nothing to do with the crash and sent his condolences.

Internationals are now changing their travel plans, both within the country and trips into Afghanistan. The question now is what will bring back any shred of confidence in the domestic carriers.

For those us who have the means to pay the large ticket prices of the United Nations and other charter airlines, it comes as a hassle, but we can still move if need be.

It is the Afghans who will lose the most. Most who can afford to fly have no option but to fly these airlines. Well, they could brave the Afghan roads, but the white-knuckle section of those trips are not limited to take-off and landing.