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June 18, 2009

The Paris Air Show and the Brouhaha over Air France's 330 Crash

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Photo: Barbara Peterson

by Barbara S. Peterson

The vintage planes assembled at Le Bourget Airport for the centennial of the Paris Air Show sounded an oddly off note this year amid all the bad news in aviation. Not only was this the worst economic crisis in years, but speculation over the causes of the crash of Air France Flight 447 (an Airbus A330 plane) compounded the gloom. Still, the biennial event, the world's biggest gathering of plane makers and their customers, drew many thousands of visitors, who jammed roadways named after Lindbergh and other aviation heroes leading into the historic airfield a few miles north of Paris. 

The nostalgia, stoked by various aerobatic demonstrations, didn't do much to paper over the unpleasant reality of aviation in the year 2009, however.  Yesterday, a press conference held by the agency leading the investigation into the Air France accident yielded little solid information, with French officials pleading for patience. At the same time, EASA, the pan-European aviation safety body, said it would decide by Friday whether to require all airlines flying the A330 to replace speed sensors that may have malfunctioned. Not doing this contributed to the Air France jet's mysterious demise (see Clive Irving's piece, to follow).

Airbus executives, too, were put on the defensive at a news briefing.

After they repeated several times that plane makers typically don't conduct accident investigations themselves, but instead leave it to the appropriate government authorities, the consortium's president and chief executive officer, Thomas Enders, figuratively threw up his hands, saying "what do you guys want?"

Airbus also sought to assuage consumers' fears that the jet broke up due to an inherent flaw rather than a one-time freak event. John Leahy, Airbus' chief commercial officer, emphasized that the A330 is the "workhorse of long distance flying," is safe and reliable, and there are so many plying the skies that one takes off on average every minute.

Typically new plane orders are announced with much fanfare at air shows (Paris alternates with another biennial event at London's Farnborough), but this year they were predictably skimpy. Until yesterday, when it got a small sale from a leasing company, Boeing hadn't snared a single order. Airbus got a few sales from small, low-fare airlines like Air Asia and a few based on previous orders from Middle Eastern players like Qatar and Etihad, but even the oil-rich Emirates countries were not optimistic about the near term.

Further reading:
* Flight 447: The Pilots' Deadly Scenario
* Emirates A380 Won't Take Manhattan
* On the Fly: The airline industry

Read Clive Irving's dispatches on Flight 447 in The Daily Beast:

* The Myth of the Black Box (June 7)
* The Secrets of Flight 447 (June 6)
* Who Was Flying Flight 447? (June 5)
* Last Words of Flight 447: From a Robot (June 3)

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