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Concordes still parked while experts confer

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PARIS — Air France Concordes must remain grounded because of continuing doubts about last month's crash and the British and French should work on new safety measures for the plane, the French Transport Ministry said Friday.

The ministry did not reveal if its inquiry into the July 25 disaster, which killed 113 people, had uncovered security problems with the basic Concorde design, but it urged caution.

"Concorde is the only supersonic airliner in the world and there are only a small number in service. As a result, despite its long life, its track record is less developed than that of any other aircraft in civilian fleets," it said in a statement.

British Airways, the only other company to operate Concordes, has resolutely maintained its supersonic service in the wake of the fatal accident.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said he would speak to his British counterpart later in the day to propose that their aviation authorities work together on "common measures" for Concorde in the light of current investigations.

The British Civil Aviation Authority reiterated that it had full confidence in the needle-nosed plane.

"We have people working in France with the crash investigators and we have heard nothing to indicate a problem with the plane itself," a spokesman said. "The French would have told us immediately if there was any action that needed taking."

France's Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA) said on Thursday that a metal strip on the runway probably slashed a tire of the doomed Concorde, triggering a chain of events that brought the plane down.

It was the BEA's first clear scenario for the disaster, and French Transport Ministry officials, aviation experts and investigators met Friday to review the probe findings.

"If the scenario seems to be becoming clearer, for example as concerns the reasons for the burst tire, uncertainties remain over the chronology of the chain of events as well as on particular elements, such as the source and size of the fire," the ministry statement said.

Given these lingering doubts, Air France's remaining five Concordes must stay in their hangar, the statement added.

Flight AF4590 caught fire as it roared down the runway at Paris's Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport.

Unable to abort take-off, the airliner slammed into a hotel just north of Paris after less than two minutes in the air. All 109 people on board and four persons on the ground died.

It was the first fatal accident involving the Franco-British plane, which entered commercial service in 1976.

The BEA said Thursday that the tire blowout had thrown up pieces of rubber weighing as much as nine pounds with massive force. It went on to say that fuel tanks on the underside of the wing were very rapidly damaged.

Air France mechanics said last week investigators might suggest that Concorde's underwing be reinforced—a potentially difficult and time-consuming operation. A spokeswoman for British Airways, which operates seven Concordes, said she had heard nothing to suggest that the company's supersonic airliners were dangerous.

"We have complete confidence in our fleet of Concordes or we would not be flying them," she said.