TIME brazil

Four People Were Killed by a Lightning Strike on a Brazilian Beach

Local media reports say they included a pregnant woman and were from the same family

Four people were killed Monday by a lightning strike on a popular beach in Brazil, during a sudden storm off the coast of São Paulo.

Citing local media, the BBC says the four included a pregnant woman and were from the same family.

Four other people were injured and taken to hospital, with two said to be in a serious condition.

The victims were sheltering from the heavy rain under a kiosk on Praia Grande beach, near the port city of Santos, when they were struck.

An earlier storm on Monday tore down trees and power lines across São Paulo state, causing transport chaos.


TIME ebola

Scottish Ebola Patient Flown to London

Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus.
Getty Images

Patient has been isolated and is receiving treatment

A health worker who recently returned from Sierra Leone has been flown to London after being diagnosed with Ebola in Glasgow.

The female aid worker, named by local media as Pauline Cafferkey, arrived late Sunday night to Glasgow Airport on a British Airways flight, having traveled from Sierra Leone to Casablanca and London before reaching Scotland. NHS Scotland, the country’s health care system, said in a statement it has rolled out its infectious disease protocol.

“Scotland has been preparing for this possibility from the beginning of the outbreak in West Africa and I am confident that we are well prepared,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in the statement. “We have the robust procedures in place to identify cases rapidly. Our health service also has the expertise and facilities to ensure that confirmed Ebola cases such as this are contained and isolated effectively minimising any potential spread of the disease.”

The patient has been isolated and is receiving care in the Brownlee Unit for Infectious Diseases of Gartnavel Hospital. Per U.K. and Scottish protocol, the woman was transferred to another high-level isolation unit at London’s Royal Free hospital.

TIME energy

Did the Saudis and the U.S. Collude in Dropping Oil Prices?

From left: Bahraini Oil Minister Abdulhussain bin Ali Mirza stands with Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi during the 10th Arab Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi, on Dec. 21, 2014.
MARWAN NAAMANI—AFP/Getty Images From left: Bahraini Oil Minister Abdulhussain bin Ali Mirza stands with Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi during the 10th Arab Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi, on Dec. 21, 2014.

The Saudis and OPEC have a vested interest in taking out higher-cost competitors who will certainly be hurt by the lower price

The oil price drop that has dominated the headlines in recent weeks has been framed almost exclusively in terms of oil market economics, with most media outlets blaming Saudi Arabia, through its OPEC Trojan horse, for driving down the price, thus causing serious damage to the world’s major oil exporters – most notably Russia.

While the market explanation is partially true, it is simplistic, and fails to address key geopolitical pressure points in the Middle East.

Oilprice.com looked beyond the headlines for the reason behind the oil price drop, and found that the explanation, while difficult to prove, may revolve around control of oil and gas in the Middle East and the weakening of Russia, Iran and Syria by flooding the market with cheap oil.

The oil weapon

We don’t have to look too far back in history to see Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and producer, using the oil price to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat convinced Saudi King Faisal to cut production and raise prices, then to go as far as embargoing oil exports, all with the goal of punishing the United States for supporting Israel against the Arab states. It worked. The “oil price shock” quadrupled prices.

It happened again in 1986, when Saudi Arabia-led OPEC allowed prices to drop precipitously, and then in 1990, when the Saudis sent prices plummeting as a way of taking out Russia, which was seen as a threat to their oil supremacy. In 1998, they succeeded. When the oil price was halved from $25 to $12, Russia defaulted on its debt.

The Saudis and other OPEC members have, of course, used the oil price for the obverse effect, that is, suppressing production to keep prices artificially high and member states swimming in “petrodollars”. In 2008, oil peaked at $147 a barrel.

MORE OPEC Ministers Decry Price War Conspiracy Theories

Turning to the current price drop, the Saudis and OPEC have a vested interest in taking out higher-cost competitors, such as U.S. shale oil producers, who will certainly be hurt by the lower price. Even before the price drop, the Saudis were selling their oil to China at a discount. OPEC’s refusal on Nov. 27 to cut production seemed like the baldest evidence yet that the oil price drop was really an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

However, analysis shows the reasoning is complex, and may go beyond simply taking down the price to gain back lost marketshare.

“What is the reason for the United States and some U.S. allies wanting to drive down the price of oil?” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked rhetorically in October. “To harm Russia.”

Many believe the oil price plunge is the result of deliberate and well-planned collusion on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia to punish Russia and Iran for supporting the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

Punishing Assad and friends

Proponents of this theory point to a Sept. 11 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah at his palace on the Red Sea. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, it was during that meeting that a deal was hammered out between Kerry and Abdullah. In it, the Saudis would support Syrian airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS), in exchange for Washington backing the Saudis in toppling Assad.

If in fact a deal was struck, it would make sense, considering the long-simmering rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its chief rival in the region: Iran. By opposing Syria, Abdullah grabs the opportunity to strike a blow against Iran, which he sees as a powerful regional rival due to its nuclear ambitions, its support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and its alliance with Syria, which it provides with weapons and funding. The two nations are also divided by religion, with the majority of Saudis following the Sunni version of Islam, and most Iranians considering themselves Shi’ites.

“The conflict is now a full-blown proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is playing out across the region,” Reuters reported on Dec. 15. “Both sides increasingly see their rivalry as a winner-take-all conflict: if the Shi’ite Hezbollah gains an upper hand in Lebanon, then the Sunnis of Lebanon—and by extension, their Saudi patrons—lose a round to Iran. If a Shi’ite-led government solidifies its control of Iraq, then Iran will have won another round.”

The Saudis know the Iranians are vulnerable on the oil price. Experts say the country needs $140 a barrel oil to balance its budget; at sub-$60 prices, the Saudis succeed in pressuring Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, possibly containing its nuclear ambitions and making the country more pliable to the West, which has the power to reduce or lift sanctions if Iran cooperates.

Adding credence to this theory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting earlier this month that the fall in oil prices was “politically motivated” and a “conspiracy against the interests of the region, the Muslim people and the Muslim world.”

Pipeline conspiracy

Some commentators have offered a more conspiratorial theory for the Saudis wanting to get rid of Assad. They point to a 2011 agreement between Syria, Iran and Iraq that would see a pipeline running from the Iranian Port Assalouyeh to Damascus via Iraq. The $10-billion project would take three years to complete and would be fed gas from the South Pars gas field, which Iran shares with Qatar. Iranian officials have said they plan to extend the pipeline to the Mediterranean to supply gas to Europe – in competition with Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter.

“The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline – if it’s ever built – would solidify a predominantly Shi’ite axis through an economic, steel umbilical cord,” wrote Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar.

Global Research, a Canada-based think tank, goes further to suggest that Assad’s refusal in 2009 to allow Qatar to construct a gas pipeline from its North Field through Syria and on to Turkey and the EU, combined with the 2011 pipeline deal, “ignited the full-scale Saudi and Qatari assault on Assad’s power.”

“Today the U.S.-backed wars in Ukraine and in Syria are but two fronts in the same strategic war to cripple Russia and China and to rupture any Eurasian counter-pole to a U.S.-controlled New World Order. In each, control of energy pipelines, this time primarily of natural gas pipelines—from Russia to the EU via Ukraine and from Iran and Syria to the EU via Syria—is the strategic goal,” Global Research wrote in an Oct. 26 post.

Poking the Russian bear

How does Russia play into the oil price drop? As a key ally of Syria, supplying Assad with billions in weaponry, President Vladimir Putin has, along with Iran, found himself targeted by the House of Saud. Putin’s territorial ambitions in the Ukraine have also put him at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of the EU, which in May of this year imposed a set of sanctions on Russia.

As has been noted, Saudi Arabia’s manipulation of the oil price has twice targeted Russia. This time, the effects of a low price have hit Moscow especially hard due to sanctions already in place combined with the low ruble. Last week, in an effort to defend its currency, the Bank of Russia raised interest rates to 17 percent. The measure failed, with the ruble dropping another 20 percent, leading to speculation the country could impose capital controls. Meanwhile, Putin took the opportunity in his annual televised address to announce that while the economy is likely to suffer for the next two years and that Russians should brace for a recession, “Our economy will get diversified and oil prices will go back up.”

He may be right, but what will the effect be on Russia of a sustained period of low oil prices? Eric Reguly, writing in The Globe and Mail last Saturday, points out that with foreign exchange reserves at around $400 billion, the Russian state is “in no danger of collapse” even in the event of a deep recession. Reguly predicts the greater threat is to the Russian private sector, which has a debt overhang of some $700 billion.

“This month alone, $30-billion of that amount must be repaid, with another $100-billion coming due next year. The problem is made worse by the economic sanctions, which have made it all but impossible for Russian companies to finance themselves in Western markets,” he writes.

Will it work?

Whether one is a conspiracy theorist or a market theorist, in explaining the oil price drop, it really matters little, for the effect is surely more important than the cause. Putin has already shown himself to be a master player in the chess game of energy politics, so the suggestion that sub-$60 oil will crush the Russian leader has to be met with a healthy degree of skepticism.

MORE OPEC Calls For Widespread Production Cuts

Moscow’s decision on Dec. 1 to drop the $45-billion South Stream natural gas pipeline project in favor of a new pipeline deal with Turkey shows Putin’s willingness to circumvent European partners to continue deliveries of natural gas to European countries that depend heavily on Russia for its energy requirements. The deal also puts Turkey squarely in the Russian energy camp at a time when Russia has been alienated by the West.

Of course, the Russian dalliance with China is a key part of Putin’s great Eastern pivot that will keep stoking demand for Russian gas even as the Saudis and OPEC, perhaps with U.S. collusion, keep pumping to hold down the price. The November agreement, that would see Gazprom supply Chinese state oil company CNPC with 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year, builds on an earlier deal to sell China 38 bcm annually in an agreement valued at $400 billion.

As Oilprice.com commented on Sunday, “ongoing projects are soldiering on and Russian oil output is projected to remain unchanged into 2015.”

“Russia will go down with the ship before ceding market share – especially in Asia, where Putin reaffirmed the pivot is real. Saudi Arabia and North America will have to keep pumping as Putin plans to uphold his end in this game of brinksmanship.”

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

Read more from Oilprice.com:

TIME ebola

Ebola Cases Reach Over 20,000

Health workers push a gurney with a dead body at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, Kono district Eastern Sierra Leone on Dec. 19, 2014.
Baz Ratner—Reuters Health workers push a gurney with a dead body at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, Kono district Eastern Sierra Leone on Dec. 19, 2014.

There's close to 400 new cases in just four days

Cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have reached over 20,000.

New numbers released from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday show Ebola has infected 20,081 people and killed 7,842. That’s nearly 400 new cases of the disease in just four days.

Despite missions launched by countries and international groups like the United States and United Nations in the last few months, the disease continues to spread. Sierra Leone has passed Liberia in number of cases. Many are anxiously awaiting a vaccine that’s been estimated to become available in the early part of the new year and researchers are also working on developing drugs to treat Ebola.

Some experts believe the epidemic will last a full second year.

MORE: TIME Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

TIME energy

Egypt and the Double-Edged Sword of Cheap Oil

From left: Kuwait's parliamentary speaker Merzuk Ali el-Ganim meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 27, 2014.
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images From left: Kuwait's parliamentary speaker Merzuk Ali el-Ganim meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 27, 2014.

The price of oil has plummeted by nearly 50 percent since June

The good news for Egypt: Inexpensive oil means the government needs to spend less on its fuel subsidies for its energy-hungry population of 86 million people, the third largest in the Middle East.

The bad news: Rich oil-producing countries in the region are making less money on their primary exports and thus may eventually have to reduce the financial aid they’ve been showering on Cairo.

The price of oil has plummeted by nearly 50 percent since June, leaving benchmark crudes now trading at around $60 per barrel, down from their peak of more than $110. If the current price of oil holds, the Egyptian government is expected to save $4.2 billion on fuel subsidies in the fiscal years that spans parts of 2014 and 2015, a 30 percent reduction, says Egypt’s Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail.

MORE Did The Saudis And The US Collude In Dropping Oil Prices?

The low price of oil has benefits that go far beyond the subsidies, according to one company, Citadel Holding, also known as Qalaa Holding, a major business conglomerate in Egypt. In a report issued Dec. 18, the conglomerate claimed that cheap oil would help cut the country’s budget deficit and balance of payments by at least $5.5 billion.

“This value can be increased with the lowering of prices of other goods, which will contribute to a healthy economic environment in Egypt,” Citadel said. It said the drop in energy costs also has specifically benefited Citadel in all its enterprises, from logistics to transportation to cement and, of course, energy.

Egypt’s economy has been weak since the popular uprising in 2011 that led to the ouster of long-time President Hosni Mubarak. Rich oil states in the Persian Gulf have contributed heavily to keep Egypt stable under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

The Gulf States oppose Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, regarding the Islamist political movement as a threat. They have sent Egypt goods and money worth $10.6 billion during Cairo’s 2013-2014 fiscal year in efforts to strengthen the country’s economy to improve its neglected subsidy system. They plan to give billions of dollars more at an international conference in March.

MORE A Truce In The Holy Oil War?

The amount of this aid to Egypt will probably remain stable, at least for the near term, as long as oil prices don’t fall much further. Yet not all OPEC members are as rich as Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia. Venezuela and Iran have been outspoken against the cartel’s decision not to cut production to shore up prices at its Nov. 27 meeting in Vienna.

Further, a survey by Bloomberg News shows that oil prices now are too low for 10 of OPEC’s 12 members to balance their governments’ budgets. The exceptions, the news agency reports, are Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia may be losing money on oil at the moment, Bloomberg says, but its treasury has nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars in reserve.

“This is a double-edged sword,” said Justin Dargin, a Middle East specialist at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “If oil prices remain low, it is likely that its Gulf patrons will be forced to reduce some of their funding.”

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

Read more from Oilprice.com:

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: The Missing AirAsia Jet

What You Need to Know About the Missing AirAsia Jet

AirAsia QZ 8501 went missing on Sunday morning with 162 people on board.

This is the second time this year a Malaysian airline’s plane has gone missing, the first being Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which has still not been found.

The plane lost contact with air traffic control, but no distress signal was sent out. Searchers have set out by air and sea, focusing on the area near Belitung island in the Java sea.

The CEO of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes has been tweeting about the disappearance throughout the weekend.

Watch today’s Know Right Now for everything you need to know about AirAsia’s missing jet.

TIME ebola

FDA Approves Roche’s Ebola Test

Getty Images

A fast-acting Ebola test gets a green light for emergency use

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved pharmaceutical company Roche’s fast-acting Ebola test for emergency use.

It can take almost a full day to get results from Ebola tests on the market, but Roche’s new LightMix Ebola Zaire rRT-PCR Test provides results in just over three hours. Reuters reports that the test had been used temporarily by some labs in the U.S. and other countries to identify the strain of Ebola spreading in West Africa. The test is still not approved for general use.

Early diagnosis can lead to faster response and treatment. So far, 7,693 people have died of Ebola in West Africa and 19,695 have contracted the disease. The test is used on patients who begin to exhibit symptoms of the disease.


TIME Greece

Here’s Why Greek Elections Are Making Europeans Feel Very Nervous

Greek Prime Minister Samaras reacts in parliament during the last round of a presidential vote in Athens
Yannis Behrakis—Reuters Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras reacts in parliament during the last round of a presidential vote in Athens on Dec. 29, 2014.

Parties are divided on economic plan to stop bankruptcy or to start spending money the country does not have

After five years looking into the abyss, Greece is on the verge of taking a big step forward.

In a third and final vote, the debt-laden country’s parliament refused to elect a new president, triggering snap elections that may bring to power the radical left-wing Syriza party, which has threatened to default if Greece’s creditors don’t forgive it at least some of its huge debts.

A Syriza victory would make sovereign default, which has been taboo all through the Eurozone’s debt crisis, a very real risk again. The party argues that Greece can never recover unless it gets at least some debt forgiveness, something which neither the Eurozone nor the International Monetary Fund are inclined to give.

Default, which Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has threatened if he doesn’t get his way, would likely lead to Greece exiting the Eurozone, shaking confidence in the currency union’s ability to survive. Recession in Europe and a new wave of volatility in global financial markets would be assured.

It may never happen. Although Syriza came out top in May when Greece voted in this year’s elections to the European Parliament, its lead over the ruling coalition has been narrowing in recent weeks. Two opinion polls at the weekend put its lead over Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party at 1.7% and 3.3%, down from over 5% a month ago. Samaras Monday said the new elections would take place Jan. 25.

Local media reports suggest that, while Samaras’ government is deeply unpopular because of the cuts in public spending it has made at the order of the foreign creditors, the country has little appetite for a radical new experiment just as it appears to be exiting recession after five long years (gross domestic product grew 0.7% in the third quarter and was 1.6% higher than a year ago).

A weekend poll showed around 60% of Greeks were against early elections. Against that background, Samaras has gambled that, even if parliament rejected his candidate for (the largely ceremonial post of) president, voters would punish the opposition rather than him.

“The Greek people understand where this adventure could lead,” Samaras told national TV at the weekend.

If he’s right, then the election could result in a vote of confidence for his unlikely coalition with PASOK, the party that has traditionally dominated the left of Greek politics, but which was shattered by its inept handling of the early stage of the crisis. That coalition currently holds a slim majority of 155 in the 300-seat parliament.

Either way, the signs are that Syriza, which is still polling only around 28%, would struggle to form a government on its own. There is no guarantee that it will find enough allies to build a majority of its own. Nor is there any guarantee that it would follow through on its campaign rhetoric, once faced with the responsibilities of power.

If Tsipras actually does get as far as the negotiating table at Brussels, then the threat of default could still be averted by some concessions on repaying over €200 billion of bailout loans. Throughout the crisis, Eurozone leaders have shown just enough flexibility to keep the currency union together, and with Greece now posting a budget surplus before interest payments, the Eurozone can afford some relief dressed up as a reward for good behavior.

The trouble for Tsipras is that the clubby circle of mainstream politicians that head the Eurozone would far rather reward Samaras, one of their own and a man who has finally dragged Greece along the path of reform, than some upstart firebrand who wants to play by different rules. A victory for Syriza would be the first clear embrace of a radical left-wing agenda by a Eurozone country in response to its problems, the first democratic mandate for a government to use default to escape its debts.

The redoubtable German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has faced down enough similar threats from bankrupt countries in the last five years, told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag at the weekend that “If Greece chooses a different path, things will get difficult…Every new government has to keep the agreements made by its predecessors.”

Financial market reaction suggested that investors see the news as a major negative for Greece but only moderately bad news for the rest of the Eurozone. The Athens stock market plunged 11.8% on the news but recovered by early afternoon to be down “only” 6.9%, while the yield on Greece’s three-year bonds, which would be worst hit by a tactical default, soared by over 1.2 percentage points to 11.78%.

Three years ago, bad news from any one of the Eurozone’s weak, “peripheral” economies would affect the bonds of all the others. However, the impact Monday was far more muted, a sign that markets still largely trust the European Central Bank’s promise to do “everything it takes” to keep the Eurozone together. The yield on Italy’s benchmark 10-year bond was up only 5 basis points at 2.00%, while Portugal’s rose 4 basis points to 2.75% (A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point).

This article originally appeared on fortune.com

TIME Greece

Greece Fears New Financial Crisis as Election is Called

Greek Prime Minister Samaras reacts in parliament during the last round of a presidential vote in Athens
Yannis Behrakis—Reuters Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras reacts in parliament during the last round of a presidential vote in Athens on Dec. 29, 2014.

European financial markets fear Greek uncertainty could unsettle the euro zone

Greek lawmakers rejected a new president for a third time on Monday, which constitutionally triggers a snap general election, Reuters reports.

The sole candidate, Stavros Dimas, failed to get the 180 out of 300 votes required and forced the government that sponsored him to seek a new mandate, probably before mid-February.

Greek financial markets reacted negatively on Monday to the prospect of political uncertainty. The Greek government is trying to cut public spending and increase taxes which has led to economic depression. These policies of austerity were required by Greece’s European Union partners as a condition for a financial bailout which staved off bankruptcy. The main opposition party Syriza, which is ahead in opinion polls, say they will reject policies of austerity and demand a re-negotiation of Greece’s agreements with the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund.

Read More: Here’s Why Greek Elections Are Making Europeans Feel Very Nervous


TIME Aviation

Everything We Know About the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

The answer, at this stage of the search operation, is very little

In the third Malaysian-linked aviation disaster this year, an AirAsia plane traveling from Indonesia to Singapore disappeared early Sunday over the Java Sea. Officials indicate that it probably crashed into the ocean, and although possible wreckage has already been spotted, nothing has yet been confirmed.

What happened?

AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 departed Surabaya, Indonesia, bound for Singapore at 5.35 a.m. on Sunday, but lost contact with air traffic control after 42 minutes. The flight path was almost entirely over water.

The pilot asked for clearance to change altitude and direction minutes before contact was lost in order to avoid heavy cloud. This request was reportedly denied.

There were 162 people on board including seven crew. The passengers were mainly Indonesian, but there was also a Singaporean, a Malaysian and a British citizen on the manifest. The copilot was French.

How are search and rescue efforts progressing?

Searchers set out by air and sea soon after the plane did not arrive as planned at 8.30 a.m. at Singapore’s Changi Airport. However, bucketing rain and poor visibility hampered their efforts.

The Java Sea is a major shipping lane, well mapped and comparatively shallow. But strong westerly currents may have shifted any debris from where the last radar contact was received. Efforts are focusing near Belitung island off eastern Sumatra in the Java Sea.

The procedure will be to lay a grid over where the last radar contact was received and expand the search systematically from that point. “If it’s in the water, something will turn up,” Captain Desmond Ross, an Australia-based aviation expert, tells TIME.

Skies cleared overnight and Monday’s search is taking place in better conditions.

What may have caused the plane to go down?

Current theories relate to bad weather in the area, especially since Captain Iriyanto — who, like many Indonesians, only uses one name — had asked for permission to ascend from 32,000 ft. to 38,000 ft. to avoid cloud.

Meteorologists say cloud tops may have reached over 50,000 ft., though, and satellite imagery shows a huge storm that quickly disappeared, indicating a massive amount of rainfall in a short period.

There is speculation that flying through thunderstorms at high altitude could have caused ice to form on instruments, giving erroneous readings and affecting navigation. Similar problems are thought responsible for the ditching in the Atlantic of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009, that killed all 228 people aboard.

However, there are problems with this theory. Firstly, cockpit recordings indicate the Air France crew hadn’t been trained for such circumstances. But ever since, Airbus has put new training in place so that all pilots who fly their aircraft know how to deal with these occurrences. “It’s a new regime,” says Ross.

What’s more, the Air France flight was in the dead of night and so the crew only had instruments to rely on. “I don’t even think they had a horizon,” says Ross. It is unlikely such a tragedy would have occurred in daylight conditions such as QZ 8501 experienced.

Essentially, says Ross, “Weather doesn’t cause accidents. Accidents are caused by poor decision-making or other things like malfunctions.” What’s more, just 10% of fatal crashes from 2004 through 2013 occurred while a plane was at cruise elevation, according to a safety study published by Boeing in August. (Almost half were at approach and landing.)

Monsoon conditions over the Java Sea are well known, and lightning strikes or turbulence do not generally cause planes to come down. If the weather was sufficiently bad to have caused a crash, then this would have been known prior to or early in the flight. At the very least, the plane should have either flown around the storm or turned around and landed back at Surabaya.

A320-200 pilots can generally see a thunderstorm forming from over 100 miles away, and commercial planes sometimes detour their flightpaths even more than that again to avoid such problems.

Did the pilot indicate the plane was in trouble?

No distress call was reported, neither from the radio nor the transponder. The last contact from the cockpit was at 6:12 a.m. local time when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 38,000 feet [11,600 meters],” say officials. Radar contact was lost three minutes later.

The lack of the distress call is not entirely surprising, as pilots are trained to focus first on dealing with any emergency and to communicate only if and when free to do so. However, says Ross,“I’m having a bit of a problem that we haven’t heard anything from emergency locator transmitters or anything else.”

What about the plane?

The Airbus A320-200 used for QZ 8501 had two pilots, four flight attendants and one engineer on board. The single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner was delivered in 2008 and had last had scheduled maintenance on Nov. 16. The A320, which entered service in 1988, has seen a total of 11,163 orders with 6,331 deliveries to date to more than 300 operators globally. (AirAsia is the largest commercial customer of the A320, with 184 orders and 157 deliveries.) It is a true industry workhorse specializing in short-hall flights under five hours.

According the Aviation Safety Network accident database, there have been 54 incidents involving the A320. The most deadly was the crash of a TAM Linhas Aereas plane in 2007 that killed all 187 on board, plus a further dozen people on the ground, after the plane careered off the runway during landing in Brazil’s Sao Paulo airport in wet conditions.

The A320 was also what pilot Chesley Sullenberger was flying in 2009 when he miraculously landed on the Hudson River in New York after hitting a flock of geese. Everyone on board survived.

What is the reputation of AirAsia?

The plane was owned and operated by Indonesia AirAsia, which is 49% owned by AirAsia — a low-cost airline based in Malaysia that primarily serves Southeast Asia but has begun expanding aggressively in China and India and previously has flown to European and U.S. destinations.

Charismatic CEO Tony Fernandes, who also hosts the Asian version of The Apprentice, took over the airline in 2001 when it had just two planes, and has overseen meteoric growth. Today, AirAsia flies to 88 destinations and has a spotless safety record.

“AirAsia are considered to be quite well funded and apparently Tony Fernandes is a stickler for safety and good maintenance,” says Ross. “There are no black marks against them at this point in time.”

Indonesia AirAsia likewise has a good reputation for safety.

What about the pilots?

Captain Iriyanto boasted a total of 6,100 flying hours. First Officer Remi Emmanuel Plesel, 45, a French National, had 2,275 flying hours. Iriyanto’s nephew Doni told Indonesian news portal Detik.com that his uncle was a good man who wanted to help people. “He is a very caring person,” he said, according to the Malaysian Insider. “If there is a sick relative who needed help and even money, my uncle would be there.”

So what is up with Malaysian air carriers?

Following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH37 over Ukraine in July, this appears to be the third major aviation disaster connected with Malaysia this year. But it could just be a horrifying coincidence. All three incidents are sufficiently unique to rule out any kind of systemic flaw across the national, or regional, aviation industry.

Read next: Objects Spotted That May Be Related to Missing AirAsia Jet, Say Officials

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