Russian investigators said last night that the passenger jet which crashed in the Sinai peninsula had broken up in mid-air, as airlines scrambled to re-route flights around the lawless Egyptian territory.
A total of 224 people died, including 25 children, when the Airbus A321-200 came down 23 minutes after leaving Sharm el-Sheikh. Most passengers were families from the St Petersburg region heading home after a winter sun break on the Red Sea.
The jet climbed to 31,000ft in the first 21 minutes before suddenly descending 5,000ft and then disappearing from radar screens. Victor Sorochenko, the head of Russia’s interstate aviation committee, said it was too early to say why the aircraft had broken up, though experts suggested a mechanical problem was likelier than a terrorist attack.
It emerged last night that Sergei Trukhachev, the co-pilot, had expressed concerns about the plane’s airworthiness hours before take-off. “He complained that the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired,” Natalya Trukhacheva, his former wife, said.
EasyJet said that it would “actively review” flight paths over Egypt. The airline said that it would continue to serve Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada but holidaymakers who no longer wanted to take the Egypt flight would be given an alternative.
Thomas Cook, Emirates, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM airlines said they had stopped flying over the area since the disaster. British Airways said it had no plans to alter its flights to Egypt but refused to comment on the exact route.
Yesterday, it emerged that the Department for Transport issued a “notice to airmen” in early September warning them of the “potential risk to aviation overflying this area”. Airlines were told not to fly at lower than 25,000 feet because of the threat of “dedicated anti-aviation weaponry”.
Security experts insisted that this altitude was beyond the range of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that Sinai militants are known to carry More than 900,000 Britons visit Egypt every year, but numbers have dipped in light of political instability.
In the remote and lawless region, investigators began picking over the wreckage yesterday at the scene of the worst crash in Russian aviation history. The Airbus A321-200 was operated by Kogalymavia, also known as Metrojet.
Bedouin tribesmen told reporters that they had seen smoke and flames coming from the aircraft before it hit the ground.
Ms Trukhacheva told Russian state media that he had voiced concerns before the flight. “Our eldest daughter spoke to him on the phone before he flew out. He complained that the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired,” she said.
Her former husband was an experienced and extremely capable pilot, she added. “If there had been any chance at all, he would have landed the plane.”
More than 160 bodies have been recovered, many strapped into their seats. Two black box recorders have been found.
A second plane carrying victims is due to leave Egypt for Russia at 4pm (GMT) today, with relatives to identify their remains in St Petersburg, where the flight was headed.
It was unclear how many bodies would be on board, as Russian officials intended to continue their search until 8pm (GMT) today. A first plane landed in the city this morning with 140 bodies on board, down from an initial estimate of 144.
Relatives will be invited one by one to try to identify their loved ones. They have already been providing DNA samples at a crisis centre set up near Pulkovo airport, which has become the site of an impromptu memorial.
Igor Albin, the St Petersburg deputy governor, said: “One hundred and forty bodies have been repatriated, according to the latest information. There are body fragments, that is why there was a discrepancy.”
The Kogalymavia airline, owned by Ismail Lepiyev, a Chechen, and Hamit Cankut Bagana, a Turk, is based in Moscow. The company said that the 18-year-old aircraft had been in good shape and had received its mandatory factory maintenance last year.
The airline said today that it would be impossible for the plane to break up in mid-air because of a technical or pilot fault, meaning the only possible explanation was “physical or mechanical actions”.
However, some former passengers said that they had had concerns about the airline and its safety provisions. Three people were killed in 2011 when a Kogalymavia aircraft burst into flames on the tarmac in Surgut, western Siberia.
Olga Fink, a Russian blogger, described flying Kogalymavia to Egypt in 2013. “The seats were from at least four different aircraft, and everything shook,” she wrote. “The stewardesses were openly drunk . . . and we only landed at the fourth attempt.”
The crashed aircraft is believed to have suffered damage to its tail during a landing at Cairo airport in 2001. Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted a source at Sharm el-Sheikh airport as saying that the crew had spoken several times to Egyptian airport technicians about “engine start failures” in the past week.
One official at Sharm el-Sheikh airport said that the aircraft had experienced regular minor maintenance problems. “This particular plane was always breaking down,” said the official, who declined to be named. “But it has always been things that the plane could technically take off with. The log book had nothing significant in it that could stop the plane taking off.”
Another official who conducted a pre-flight check insisted that it was in good condition. A take-off had been aborted three months earlier because of a system error, “but that was almost routine”, he added.
The Russian government issued a statement yesterday rejecting as “fabrications” claims by Isis militants that they had brought down the aircraft in revenge for Russian military intervention in Syria.
The jihadists later produced a poor-quality video of what they said was the burning aircraft plummeting to the ground. “Soldiers of the caliphate were able to down a Russian airplane over Sinai province,” their statement said. “It was carrying more than 220 Russian crusaders.”
Western analysts said that the altitude of the Russian airliner made it highly improbable that Isis could have shot it down. Douglas Barrie, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles commonly used by the militants would not reach an altitude of more than 20,000ft, and more sophisticated missile systems required radar systems and a high level of training.
Despite Russia’s rejection of the Isis claim, Air France, Lufthansa and Emirates Airlines announced yesterday that they were temporarily rerouting their planes to avoid the Sinai peninsula.
Hossam Kamal, Egypt’s civil aviation minister, denied reports that the pilot sent an SOS signal requesting an emergency landing. “The plane simply disappeared from radar screens,” he said.
Four of the passengers were from Ukraine and one from Belarus. All the others were Russian.
A day of mourning was observed in Russia yesterday, and President Putin expressed his condolences to the family and friends of the dead in a press release.
One couple, Yuri and Olga Sheina, had recorded in meticulous detail on social media their holiday to mark their fourth wedding anniversary. “Egypt, sun, sea,” wrote Mrs Sheina before leaving St Petersburg. “We are flying on vacation!” A picture taken as they left to go home showed Mr Sheina carrying his three-year-old daughter on to the plane. “Hello Peter, goodbye Egypt,” his wife wrote.