Crash jet airline replaces speed sensors on fleet

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The Independent Online

Air France has replaced the air speed sensors on its entire fleet of Airbus A330 and A340 long-haul aircraft, a pilots' union official yesterday. The company had been under pressure from pilots who feared the devices could be linked to the crash of Flight 447.

In the deep waters of the mid-Atlantic, a Dutch ship began trolling with a high-tech U.S. Navy listening device Monday in search of the flight data and voice recorders. Investigators say information from those black boxes may be key to determining what caused Flight 447 to crash into the ocean with 228 people on board.

Experts looking into the May 31 crash of the 4-year-old Airbus A330 jet have so far focused on the possibility that external speed monitors — called Pitot tubes — iced over and gave false readings to the plane's computers.

Air France had begun replacing the tubes on its A330 and A340 jets before the accident, but had not yet changed them on the plane that crashed.

After pilot complaints, the airline pledged to speed up the switch and it has now equipped all planes with the new sensors, said Erick Derivry, a spokesman for the SNPL pilots' union.

Derivry stressed that it is still "not proven or established" that the old sensors caused the accident.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders defended the A300 on Monday as his company sought to sell more of the planes at the Paris Air Show.

"Their record is very, very impressive," he said. "(They have) more than 16 million flight hours, more than 3 million flights, and this is so far one of the safest commercial aircraft built."

"We are supporting the investigation as much as we can and we very much hope that the recorders will be found soon, so that we find out what really happened," Enders said.

At sea, searchers began towing a U.S. Navy Towed Pinger Locator in a grid pattern in hopes of detecting emergency beacons from Flight 447's black boxes, which could be lying thousands of feet below the ocean surface. The sounds begin to quickly fade 30 days after a crash.

The initial search spans 2,000 square miles of the Atlantic, said U.S. Air Force Col. Willie Berges, commander of the American military forces supporting the search.

French military officials also are using nuclear submarine to hunt for the black boxes and a second Dutch ship carrying another pinger locater was to arrive Monday afternoon.

"We have a limited amount of time to cover the search area," Berges said, but added that the hunt will go on even if no pings are detected beyond the 30-day timeframe.

In Geneva, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said French President Nicholas Sarkozy assured him the French government would compensate the families of crash victims. The two leaders were attending the International Labor Conference.

"He (Sarkozy) said that they will take the responsibility to pay the indemnity for all the families that suffered with the crash, the Brazilian and French families and of other countries," Silva told reporters, speaking through a translator.

An Air France spokesman, however, said the airline and its insurance company — not the government — are handling compensation. The official, who declined to name the insurance company, spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter.

A spokeswoman for the French Transport Ministry also denied the government would pay compensation, saying this would be handled by Air France's insurance. She was speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ministry policy.

The French presidential palace in Paris and the French mission in Geneva would not immediately comment.

Experts say the evidence uncovered up until now points to at least a partial midair breakup of the plane, with no evidence so far of an explosion or terrorist act.

French Ambassador Pierre-Jean Vandoorne, a liaison between the victims' families and authorities, said Monday he met in Recife with leaders of Brazil's search effort and was told they were keeping up their effort.

He said Brazilian and French aviators have already spent 1,000 flight hours looking for victims and debris.

Brazilian authorities say they have recovered 43 bodies and another six have been found by French ships.

Vandoorne would not comment on the nationality or any other details of the bodies pulled from the ocean. Coroners say victims' dental records and DNA samples from relatives will be needed to confirm the identities of the 16 bodies examined so far.