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Air France chief questions sensor role in crash

AIR France is not yet convinced that faulty speed sensors were to blame for the loss of one of its planes over the Atlantic, but it is replacing old sensors as a precaution, the airline's chief executive said today.

Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters that Air France was in a state of shock over the disaster and said he expected to have more information about what went wrong within a week.

An Air France Airbus 330 crashed into the sea on June 1 enroute from Brazil to Paris, killing all 228 aboard.

Air accident investigators have said the Airbus registered inconsistent speed readings just before contact was lost, raising speculation that the pilots might inadvertently have flown at the wrong speed and precipitated the disaster.

Air France subsequently reported it noticed temporary loss of air speed data on previous Airbus flights due to icing up of the sensors and said it was speeding up a pre-planned replacement programme.

"As circumstances would have it, the first replacements arrived practically on the eve of the accident, on the Friday," Gourgeon told a news briefing, adding, "I am not convinced that speed sensors were the cause of crash."

The French air accident agency has said it is too early to pinpoint any possible cause for the crash, saying there were only two certainties -- that the plane had hit stormy weather before the crash and that the speed readings were incoherent.

Airbus denied a French newspaper report on Wednesday that it was considering grounding its fleet of A330 and A340 planes in the wake of the disaster, saying they were safe to fly.

Air France said at the weekend it had noticed the icing problems on the speed sensors in May 2008 and had asked Airbus for a solution to reduce or overcome the difficulty. Gourgeon said these "incidents" had not been deemed catastrophic.

Airbus responded by reaffirming existing operating procedures, according to Air France in a statement on Saturday.

Air France said tests had later convinced it that probes developed for another model would be more efficient and that it had decided to go ahead and start fitting them from April 27 without waiting for further testing proposed by the planemaker.

The speed sensors on the Air France A330 were supplied by France's Thales, which has produced two versions of the so-called pitot tube for Airbus aircraft.

The crashed plane had the earlier Thales model and Air France is swapping them out for the more recent model.


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