I spent the last week in a somewhat remote village in Kazakhstan, close to the Uzbek border, visiting a friend who was getting married. The house in which I was staying did not have a fixed line telephone let alone internet, and with roaming charges coming in at a bargain 13 Euros per Mb I was effectively cut off from my normal information channels. As such, I received the terrible news that Total’s CEO Christophe de Margerie had been killed in a plane crash in Moscow via text message.
As I managed to scrape together more details I realised with some discomfort that the crash had occurred at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. I’d never heard of this airport (always using Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo before) until I transferred through there on my flights between Paris and Shimkent – about 24 hours before the accident. By the time I flew back on the return trip a few days later, the wreckage had been cleared.
There are two things I would like to say. Firstly, the descriptions of de Margerie as being hugely charismatic, unique, outspoken, and held in high regard are absolutely true. A couple of years ago he visited us in Nigeria to open a new office, and I turned up to the function in the company of my wife, who was over on a visit. The Big Moustache stood in front of the crowd of about 100-200 people, and because he was pushed for time waved away the bloke who was standing with his pile of notes and spoke off the cuff. I don’t remember much about what he actually said, but he delivered it well and his presence filled the room. What happened next I remembered more. The Total CEO finished speaking, received the applause, walked a few metres across the room to my wife and asked “Are you Russian?” and then proceeded to entertain the two of us with stories of his trips to Russia for about 15 minutes. To be honest I didn’t say much, I left the talking to my wife who, with her hotel sales background, can charm just about anybody. But I did invite him to my birthday party on the following weekend, but sadly he was departing that night. From this experience I can assure you that he was a man of enormous character and charm, and genuinely likeable. If you were in a business meeting or a barbecue, you would have wanted Christophe de Margerie there at the top of the invitation list. To have a drink with he would have been one hell of a lot of fun. I am sure he will be sadly missed by all those who knew him. It is a terrible shame.
The second thing I want to talk about is the circumstances of the crash. What cannot be denied is that this is a freak accident: high-speed collisions with ground objects in an airport of this size are extremely rare (Tenerife in 1977 being an obvious exception), and it must be said that de Margerie was desperately unlucky. The odds of the CEO of a major oil comany dying in a plane crash like this were negligibly low, but it happened nonetheless. Naturally, this being Russia, conspiracy theories are now circulating (I will not bother linking to them) to the effect that he was knocked off by the CIA or some other nefarious organisation for opposing the sanctions on Russia (which he did) and – it wouldn’t be a proper conspiracy theory without this one being wheeled out – suggesting oil could be sold in Euros (incidentally: the idea that selling oil in anything other than dollars concerning the Americans one jot doesn’t stand up to a basic comparison of the volume of oil sold daily versus dollars traded). All of this is nonsense on stilts: nobody had anything to gain by murdering de Margerie, and even if they did there are methods of achieving it (ramming his car with a large lorry, for example) than presumably paying an elderly snowplough driver to time his entry onto the runway with such precision that he can clip the wing of a speeding plane. It does a grave disservice to de Margerie to even entertain this rubbish.
A lot was said early on about the allegedly intoxicated state of the snowplough driver. Here is where I think I can add some value. His family were quick to point out that he had a chronic heart problem and hence could not drink, but I doubt anyone was fooled by that. He may well have a heart problem and he may well not drink, but nobody familiar with Russia would believe that something like a mere heart condition would stop somebody drinking. There is a good reason why life expectancy among Russian men is so low. But even supposing he was “drunk”, I think this is a red herring. Without advocating that we should all go about our daily business under the influence of alcohol (far from it), it is a fact that when Russians drink – even enough to render a westerner unconscious – they can often still function effectively to the point of operating complex machinery. This is not a desirable state of affairs as the alcohol will certainly impair things like reaction times, but it is not a question of comparing this to a British teenager crashing his car after drinking in the pub. If machinery operators, drivers, and pilots being drunk in Russia caused crashes the place would not function at all, especially during the Soviet times. Drinking is so widespread that Russians joke some guys know how to operate the machinery only when drunk. I don’t know what percentage of Russian pilots are drunk at the yoke, but I am positive it is higher than the percentage of actual crashes to completed flights. So my guess is the snowplough driver was “drunk” pretty much every day of his working life and never had an incident, yet on this particular day he was unfortunate enough to have an accident and get breathalysed (there is a strong parallel here with the 2012 Denzil Washington film Flight). But I doubt it was his alcohol consumption which caused or even contributed to the crash. I feel extremely sorry for the man – on TV he appears to be completely bewildered, and at 60 years old with a heart condition might well be facing the rest of his life in prison.
So if not a drunk snowplough driver, what did cause the crash? Put simply: Russian managerial and organisational incompetence. Obviously there was a huge communication and systems failure here. A snowplough should be nowhere near a working runway, especially at night, and there should be robust controls in place to ensure this sort of accident does not occur. Most likely such controls were in place – once – but as is so common in Russia a combination of complacency, bad management, laziness, poor incentives, and general incompetence has meant the controls were circumvented and the safeguards failed. The snowplough driver said he got lost, which I can well believe is true – if the visibility was a bad as he says it is. Guaranteed the equipment he was operating would have been from the 1980s or before with no system of indicating to the control tower where it is at any time. And with the speed snowploughs move even if he got lost he should have been nowhere near a working runway.
I am pleased to see the authorities appear to be taking an interest in the air traffic controllers and head of runway cleaning at Vnukovo, and hopefully the rapid resignations of the airport’s CEO and deputy will not put them beyond the reach of the investigation (but being Russia, chances are some poor sod in the lower ranks will be scapegoated whilst the well-connected bosses who presided over it walk away scott-free. Russia has form in this area).
Like so many deaths in Russia, this is a tragic accident which probably could have been avoided. It is a terrible shame for Christophe de Margerie, his family, all those that knew him, Total, the oil industry, and France. May the Big Moustache live long in our memories.