AIR TRAGEDY

Swiftair: a modest Spanish airline

The Madrid HQ of the owner of the plane that crashed over Mali has become place of mourning

Red Cross psychologists at Swiftair’s headquarters in Madrid.
Red Cross psychologists at Swiftair’s headquarters in Madrid.Denis Doyle / Getty Images

The small Fin de Semana industrial park in Madrid that houses the headquarters of Swiftair, the Spanish company that owned the MD-83 plane that crashed over Mali on its way from Burkina Faso to Algiers on Thursday, has turned into a place of mourning. The firm also employed the six crew members on the Air Algérie-operated flight who perished with the 110 passengers of various nationalities on board.

The atmosphere in the company’s offices, into which two Red Cross psychologists were seen entering on Thursday, is one of dejection and secrecy. The blinds are lowered and the employees have posted cardboard over the windows to keep out prying eyes. Nobody has made a statement or is answering the phone line set up for relatives of the victims. “I’ve come here to seek information about a relative who was traveling as a crew member,” says one man as he rings the bell of the Swiftair offices. “They haven’t called me. I’m come here on my own initiative.”

Amid all the silence, only the Basque 112 emergency services have confirmed that one of the crew members was from San Sebastián, though Sa Pobla town hall in Mallorca has said that Swiftair representatives also contacted relatives of crew members there to tell them that contact with the plane had been lost.

The blinds are lowered and the employees have posted cardboard over the windows to keep out prying eyes

Swiftair is a small company with a staff of 464 that operates 41 mid-sized and heavy aircraft: Boeing 727 and 737s, MD83s, ATR72/42s, Embraer 120s and Metronliners. Founded in 1986, most of its fleet is made up of freight planes, but it also rents its services to tour operators and corporations, supplies technical services (maintenance, for example) and operates regular passenger flights for firms in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. According to Spanish pilots’ union Sepla its clients include Air Europa, Air Algérie and even Nato. “We see a lot of people from Africa who come to do training with them: it’s part of their business,” explain three workers at the industrial park.

The company’s figures are modest. In 2013 it transported 19,734 passengers in Spain, according to the Aena state airport authority. Its profits that year were €1.2 million. Swiftair rented out the aircraft to Air Algérie under an arrangement known as wet leasing, which includes the plane, flight crew and generally, insurance for them, though that is something only the companies involved can confirm.

Eduardo Cadenas, director of institutional relations at Sepla, explains that civil responsibility will have to be determined once the terms of the contract between Swiftair and Air Algérie are known. “The one finally responsible is always the operator,” he says. “What’s more, in terms of what the two companies have signed, elements such as maintenance might be in the hands of one, the other, or even a third party.”

The plane that crashed was an MD-83, made by US firm McDonnell Douglas. It was constructed under agreement with Swiftair in 1996 and French aviation office sources say it had just been reviewed.

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