Air France, pilots union, victims group criticise transatlantic disaster probe

More than two years after Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic, killing 228, a French pilots union, a group supporting victims’ families, and Air France have all criticised the ongoing investigation. The Bureau d’enquêtes et d’analyses (BEA) is being accused of trying to blame the pilots in order to absolve Airbus.

The controversy follows the release of the BEA’s latest interim report detailing findings so far. At the last moment, the BEA removed a recommendation added by chief investigator Alain Bouillard which called for alarms on Airbus A330s to be modified.

The National Airline Pilots Union (SNPL) is concerned the investigation is degenerating “into a simple charge sheet against the crew,” and says the latest revelations left them with “seriously damaged” faith in the investigators. The SNPL has withdrawn all support in the probe. Air France claim alarms on the A330-200 were “misleading” and contributed to the disaster. Robert Soulas, president of French victims’ families group Entraide et Solidarité AF447, claims the move proves bias in the BEA.

The Air France-owned Airbus that crashed. Both airline and manufacturer are at the center of a controversy over responsibility.

The dispute surrounds stall warning systems. An aircraft stalls if it no longer has sufficient speed to keep itself airbourne. The warnings cut out at extremely low speeds, meaning if a stall progresses far enough the warning can cease. The correct course of action in a stall is to lower the nose, increasing an aircraft’s speed; if the speed increases, the warnings can sound again. This may confuse pilots into abandoning corrective measures.

The BEA have responded that the last-minute call to remove a recommendation calling for changes to stall warning design was owing to a need to examine the issue further. They say behavioral psychologists and cockpit designers have been teamed up to look into the warnings and how crews respond to them. The BEA intends to make a recommendation on the issue in the future, and a spokesperson expressed “deep regret” at the SNPL’s response.

Friday’s 117-page report did examine the actions and training of the pilots. The report says they were untrainined in high-altitude manual flying and in how to identify react to failure of speed sensors. Neither was a standard part of training at the time.

The speed sensing system failed, causing the autopilot and autothrust to switch off. This was followed by stall warnings, which the interim BEA report say were ignored by pilots during a three-and-a-half minute fall of 38,000 feet into the ocean.

“The haste with which these authorities and these officials accused the pilots without any forethought aroused our suspicions,” said Soulas. “We now have confirmation that the affirmations coming from the BEA were not only premature, (but) lacking any objectivity, partial and very oriented towards the defence of Airbus.” For weeks his organisation has mounted protests against the direction taken by the investigation.

Air France, who are battling legally with Airbus over responsibility (both firms are also under criminal investigation), wrote to the European Aviation Safety Agency asking that they examine the stall warnings and seek that they be changed in need be. Air France previously upgraded the speed sensors on their A330s.

Junior Transport Minister Thierry Mariani defended the BEA. “There has never been such a transparent enquiry: it was filmed, took place under the judiciary’s control, with Brazilian [and] American investigators. These controversies discredit an enquiry that is exemplary.” Airbus also responded. “Can you imagine for an instant that, because of economic interests or links between the BEA and Airbus, we’d put in peril all the other airlines operating this plane? It’s neither conceivable nor admissible,” said a statement. About 180 airlines use the Airbus A330.

The game-changing A380 comes to Korean Air

Airbus’ A380 will soon be in service with Korean Air as its sixth international operator, further expanding a global route network that every day is underscoring this aircraft’s undisputed role as the world air transport industry’s new flagship airliner.

During a ceremony today at Airbus’ Toulouse, France headquarters, the Seoul-based carrier celebrated its first A380 delivery, becoming one of two airlines – along with China Southern – that are to join the growing operator list during 2011.

Korean Air - Airbus A380.

Already flying the A380 in commercial revenue service are Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qantas, Air France and Lufthansa, which together have carried more than 12 million passengers while logging excellent passenger load factors and demonstrating high operational reliability.

Destinations served – and also announced for A380 service – has reached 23 cities linked by 32 different routes, including the upcoming non-stop flights planned by Korean Air from Seoul to North America and Europe. Overall, this network covers 11 of the world’s top 15 international airports, and encompasses such major hubs as London-Heathrow, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Dubai, Singapore and Tokyo; along with destinations such as Manchester, Zurich, Toronto and other cities.

Airbus A380 delivery to Korean air.

“The A380 continues to be a game-changer: it is recognised by passengers as something definitely better, while airlines are benefitting from its lowest fuel burn, cost per seat and noise of any large aircraft,” said Richard Carcaillet, Airbus’ director of A380 product marketing. “With the A380 now in its fourth year of revenue operations, this aircraft is all that it meant to be, and is now recognised as the worthy successor to the legendary – but now venerable – 747.”

A total of 234 A380s have been ordered from 18 customers to date, including carriers from all three major global airline alliances: oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. This order book tally includes the 10 A380s being acquired by Korean Air, of which the first five are to be delivered by the end of 2011, with the additional five received by 2014. · For additional information on Korean Air’s A380 first delivery celebration, see the dedicated event website.

Qantas says A380 aircraft are safe to fly after ‘serious’ incident

Australian airline Qantas has returned the first of its fleet of Airbus A380s to service, after all six of the “superjumbo” aircraft were grounded three weeks ago following one aircraft’s engine sustaining extensive midair damage; it landed safely in Singapore without injury. The airline stated that all of the aircraft have undergone extensive safety inspections and they are satisfied they are safe.

An Airbus A380 like that involved in the incident earlier this month. The A380, or "superjumbo", is the largest commercial passenger airliner in the world. Image: Andrei Dimofte.

Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, said: “It’s great that we can reintroduce the aircraft. We are 100 percent comfortable with it. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be restarting the operations today.” A spokesperson confirmed that tests had been performed “in close consultation with Rolls-Royce and Airbus” on the model’s Trent 900 engines. Qantas has replaced at least 14 engines, and modifications have been made to Trent 900s used by two other companies, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.

Experts said that the incident was embarrassing for Airbus; the airline’s shares have dropped by 7% since. Aviation journalist Tom Ballantyne said that the failure earlier this month was “certainly the most serious incident that the A380 has experienced since it entered operations.” The A380 made its first commercial flight in 2007, and is now in service with several other airlines, including Air France. It is the largest commercial passenger airliner in the world, with an 840-passenger maximum capacity, though Qantas’s can carry 450. There are reportedly plans to build a cargo version of the plane, which, aviation experts have suggested, would be the world’s first “triple-decker” freight aircraft; Airbus has not confirmed that this variant will be built.

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