PARIS – 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 on Thursday.
Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters that Air France was in a state of shock over the worst disaster in its 75 year history and expected more information about what happened 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 that it had noticed temporary loss of air speed data on previous Airbus flights due to ice collecting in the sensors, known as pitot tubes, and said it was speeding up a pre-planned replacement program.
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 that it was considering grounding its fleet of A330 and A340 planes in the wake of the disaster, saying they were safe to fly.
Gourgeon said the planemaker had reassured clients that all three types of speed sensors available for its jets were safe, including the one used on the downed A330.
Industry sources said the planemaker had also ruled out for the time being that there was an electrical power failure or loss of cockpit instrument display on the Air France jet.
Air France said at the weekend it had noticed the icing problems on the speed sensors in May 2008, although Gourgeon said these incidents had not been deemed catastrophic.
The airline 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 Airbus.
The speed sensors on the Air France A330 were supplied by France's Thales, which has produced two versions of the pitot tube for the Airbus aircraft. A third model made by U.S. firm Goodrich have not been called into question.
The crashed plane had an earlier Thales model, which is being replaced by a more recent probe.
Brazilian and French search teams have recovered 41 bodies and debris from the Atlantic some 1,000 km (620 miles) from Brazil's northern coast. A nuclear-powered French submarine is leading the search for the plane's sunken flight recorders.
Gourgeon said more information about the crash would be available once autopsies had revealed the exact cause of death and after experts had scrutinized the debris.
I think we will have a little bit more information in a week, he said.