Critics point to pitfalls of fly-by-wire technology

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The Independent Online

Airplanes by Airbus have encountered severe criticism in the past because they have "de-skilled" the pilot's job by employing "fly-by-wire" computer technology, leaving the flight crew less able to deal with emergencies.

The pilot in yesterday's American Airlines crash on Queens, New York, should have been able to continue flying the Airbus A300-600 with one engine, but there may have been other catastrophic structural failures that made his job impossible. Officials said there were indications that there was an explosion on board, which still leaves open the possibility of an act of terrorism.

The type of aircraft that crashed had a relatively good safety record. All previous crashes involving the Airbus-300 happened when airplanes were on landing approaches but yesterday's flight had just taken off from JFK airport.

The first recorded fatal crash of an A300 was in 1992 when a Pakistan International Airlines plane flew into high ground on approaching Kathmandu. The plane was some 1,600ft lower than planned and in daylight but cloud shrouded the mountains. All 12 crew and 155 passengers were killed.

Some of the crashes involving A300s have been blamed on the airlines that operate them rather than the manufacturers or the aircraft, says The Tombstone Imperative, a book on air safety by Andrew Weir.

Taiwan's China Airlines suffered a considerable drop in passenger confidence in April 1994 when an A300 crashed while approaching Nagoya, Japan, killing all but seven of the 271 on board. In February 1998, another China Airlines A300 came down near Taipei's Chiang Kai-Shek airport, killing 196 on the plane and six others. The plane disintegrated in a fireball that engulfed a cluster of buildings. Most of the passengers were holidaymakers returning from a mid-winter break on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Both disasters involved the aircraft stalling after being told to "go-around" before landing. The president of the airline resigned after the Taipei crash, closely followed by the Taiwanese transport minister. The airline Garuda Indonesia also came under fire over safety. In September, 1997, a Garuda Indonesia Airbus crashed into a hillside near Medan, Indonesia, killing all 234 people on board.

An American Airlines spokesman said the aircraft in yesterday's disaster had a maintenance check the day before the crash. Its last maintenance overhaul had been on 9 December 1999, and the next was due in July 2002.

Unofficial calculations put the number of deaths per million A300 flights at 0.78, compared with 1.59 for the Airbus A310. The figure for the Boeing 747 jumbo jet is 0.97.

There are 242 of the A300-600s flying, with a typical seating capacity of about 266 passengers. American Airlines has 35 Airbus A300-600 planes. Airbus planes as a whole have been involved in more than a dozen crashes over the past 13 years but the company points out that one of their planes takes off or lands every 10 seconds across the world.