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August 1, 2009

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Regulators tell airlines to replace speed tubes

EUROPEAN air safety regulators told world airlines yesterday they will have to replace hundreds of air speed sensors of the type that may have contributed to the Air France Airbus A330 crash in the Atlantic Ocean in June.

The announcement came after Airbus recommended that airlines flying its planes exchange some of the speed sensors made by Thales Corp for another model.

Investigators have focused on the possibility that the external monitors on the A330, known as pitot tubes, iced over and gave false speed readings to the Air France jet's computers as it ran into a turbulent thunderstorm. Each modern jet airliner carries at least three of the L-shaped metal pitot tubes that jut from the forward fuselage.

Several other manufacturers make the components, including North Carolina-based Goodrich Corp.

"The European Aviation Safety Agency plans to propose an airworthiness directive mandating that all A330 and A340 currently fitted with Thales pitot probes must be fitted with at least two Goodrich probes, allowing a maximum of one Thales to remain fitted to the aircraft," said a statement by the agency based in Cologne, Germany.

The statement said the airworthiness directive -- effectively an order to the planes' operators -- would be issued within the next 14 days. It described the move as precautionary, based on pitot tube data the agency had analyzed in recent weeks.

Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said that his company had also recommended on Thursday that airlines using its planes exchange two of the three pitot tubes on each of its A330 and A340 aircraft from the Thales type to the Goodrich product.

The recommendation would create a mix of different sensors that would increase safety by providing redundancy if one of the systems failed.

Schaffrath said the move would affect some 200 aircraft in the inventory.

He noted that it remains unclear whether incorrect air speed data had contributed in any way to the Air France crash, but said Airbus has since received more feedback from airlines about glitches with the Thales probes.

Air safety experts, however, have cautioned that there was no hard evidence that a pitot tube malfunction caused Air France Flight 447 to crash during a thunderstorm on June 1. The black boxes containing flight data recordings have never been recovered.


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