Thursday, May 19, 2011

Air France and Airbus at odds concerning AF447 data investigation

A row has erupted between Air France and Airbus as pressure grows to explain the 2009 Rio-Paris plane crash using data recovered from black boxes.

The tensions were laid bare inadvertently by a senior official following days of finger-pointing in the media and the disclosure that the A330 aircraft suffered no major faults.

Air France chief Pierre-Henri Gourgeon urged the media to stay calm over the causes of the 2009 Atlantic plane crash, which are expected to become clear in a matter of weeks.

"It is impossible today to draw conclusions about any kind of responsibility," he told a news conference.

"Let's wait until the experts give us a coherent message before heading off in one direction or another and speculating," Gourgeon said, dismissing questions over his future as chief executive of parent Air France-KLM.

But in remarks picked up by a microphone afterwards and relayed to journalists, Gourgeon told a colleague: "The way I answer is a bit rude, but I have to because of Airbus."

Air France officials are said to be upset that Airbus quickly let it be known that an initial reading of black box data uncovered no significant mechanical problems, by telling airlines it did not plan immediate new safety recommendations.

"It is not very fair play," a source familiar with the airline's thinking said, adding it had broken a convention.

The airline seems particularly upset that the industry bulletin appeared in French newspaper Le Figaro, coupled with a story line blaming Air France pilots for the crash.

Europe 1 radio reported on Thursday that the pilots were not to blame, leaving uncertainty over what did cause the Airbus jet to dive into the Atlantic killing 228 people in June 2009.

The reputations of both companies are on the line over one of the world's most shocking and unexplained disasters and both face a criminal probe as well as potential claims from families.

The black box investigation is not only happening under the glare of media attention but also comes weeks before the Paris air show, at which Airbus hopes to announce large plane orders.

Airbus has denied leaking the industry bulletin, which went out to over 100 airlines, but the huge media attention paid to the document has clouded the atmosphere of the investigation.

It says the airline bulletin had been approved by France's BEA crash investigation agency, which is leading the probe.

"Our relationship with Air France is strong," a spokesman for Airbus in Toulouse said.

"They are operating all our products including some 180 aircraft. We share with Air France the costs of the search and we all have an interest in supporting the investigation and understanding what caused the tragic loss of flight 447."

An Air France spokeswoman also denied any disagreements.

Gourgeon, a former head of France's civil aviation authority, said history had shown that air accidents were typically not caused by any individual event.

"An accident is the product of several elements coming together at one time and place," he said. Air France has reviewed all its safety measures, he added.

"If something appears from the investigation which we have not already covered by measures already taken then we will take them to be certain such an event never happens again."

Gourgeon was renewed in his post for four years by the airline group's board on Thursday but the decision must be approved by shareholders in July, raising the prospect that the move may overlap with the BEA's interim safety findings.

Asked whether he felt his position under threat if Air France took part of the blame, Gourgeon said the BEA's job was to establish causes but not to attribute responsibility.


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