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France puts safety first, keeps Concorde fleet on the ground

SHARE France puts safety first, keeps Concorde fleet on the ground

PARIS — France decided to play it safe on Tuesday and keep its fleet of Concordes grounded one week after the Gonesse air disaster that killed 113 people.

Aviation experts met all day Monday to look into new safety measures for the world's only supersonic passenger airliner, but with investigators still baffled by what went wrong, France's civil aviation authority said it was taking no risks.

"The decision by the transport minister to suspend Concorde flights remains in force," a spokesman for the authority, the DGAC, said Tuesday.

Air France pilots said there was no commercial pressure to get the company's five remaining Concordes back in the air and that the emphasis was on guaranteeing the absolute safety of the flagship aircraft.

"I think we are talking more in terms of weeks (for the return of Concorde) than days," said a spokesman for the state-controlled firm's main pilots' union.

Last Tuesday, Air France's flight AF 4590 caught fire as it took off from Paris' Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Less than two minutes later it plunged into a hotel near the town of Gonesse, killing all 109 on board and four people on the ground.

French investigators have established that one, possibly two, of the aging plane's tires had burst, that there was an intense fire probably caused by a major fuel leak and that there were problems with the landing gear and two of the four engines.

"What has not been precisely established is the order of events," Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot told reporters Tuesday. He added that aviation experts would meet again on Thursday to review progress in the inquiry.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was invited to Monday's meeting but said it had heard nothing to suggest that British Airways, the only other company to operate Concordes, should halt its supersonic service. "The grounding of an aircraft fleet type is an extremely rare occurrence," a CAA spokesman said.

"You would only do it normally if you had evidence that the next flight of that type of aircraft could or would be endangered by something you have learnt from that accident, and we have no evidence to show that," he said.

The CAA spokesman said the British and French Concordes, which rolled off the same assembly lines more than 20 years ago, had the same airworthiness standards. Last Tuesday's disaster was the first fatal crash involving the sleek, delta-winged jet.

Officials suspect that a burst tire might have sparked off a freak, deadly chain of events, with debris from the shattered undercarriage piercing the fuel tanks.

Former Concorde test pilot, Andre Turcat, told Le Monde newspaper Tuesday that he found it difficult to believe this theory and added that even sabotage remained a possibility.

"This hypothesis is not very probable, but it should not be altogether ruled out," he was quoted as saying. The government excluded sabotage or terrorism within hours of the crash.

Preliminary results of the accident investigation are due at the end of August.

However, Alain Monnier, head of a commission of inquiry appointed by Gayssot, warned Monday that the full report might take a long time to produce and noted that previous probes into air accidents had taken up to two years to complete.

Gayssot told reporters Tuesday that he would not wait until the end of the inquiry before taking a decision on Concorde and denied coming under pressure from Air France to give the green light to the plane.