AIRBUS CONTROVERSY DEEPENS IN WAKE OF CRASH IN FRANCE

AIRBUS CONTROVERSY DEEPENS IN WAKE OF CRASH IN FRANCE

A team investigating the crash of an Airbus Industrie jet on a routine flight in eastern France came under pressure Wednesday to answer a growing number of questions about the safety of the ultramodern plane.

A laboratory near Paris has begun examining the two flight recorders of the Air Inter A320, which plowed into the Vosges Mountains on Monday night, killing 87 people.But Paul Quiles, transport minister, has suggested the recorders might be too damaged to yield significant clues. If so, the mystery over the Airbus - the third of its kind to crash in four years of flying - can only deepen.

"First reports indicate information yielded (by the flight recorders) is not very important or very interesting," Mr. Quiles told television station Antenne Deux Tuesday night.

An official panel has been ordered to deliver a preliminary report within a month. The French Civil Aviation Authority was due to make its first public comments later Wednesday.

A source at the authority in Paris said there were no plans to ground A320s for checks. Mr. Quiles said Tuesday he had ruled out a temporary suspension of A320s.

Flight IT5148 from Lyon to Strasbourg suddenly lost height in freezing fog and crashed into snowbound Mont Sainte-Odile five minutes before its scheduled arrival time.

It was the third accident in four years for the A320, pride of the fleet launched by the European Airbus consortium grouping of companies from France, Britain, Germany and Spain.

Nine people survived, including a 9-year-old boy and a baby girl, although one was hospitalized in a critical condition.

Among the dead was Jean-Pierre Lecocq, 44, a Belgian who headed one of Europe's most advanced laboratories in genetic biology and was working on an AIDS vaccine.

Speculation over the cause of the accident ranged from ice paralyzing the aircraft to a problem with the computer-controlled "fly-by-wire" technology Airbus first adapted for civilian use in the A320.

The aircraft, the world's hottest-selling plane, is central to the Airbus campaign to take on U.S. rivals McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Boeing Co.

With 251 A320s in operation across the world and 401 on order, no one is eager to find fault with the plane.

The latest crash gave longstanding critics of the A320 a chance to repeat claims that the fly-by-wire system, which sends command signals electronically rather than hydraulically, is too sophisticated for its human operators.

Traditionalists also say the decision to cut cabin staff from three to two on A320s deprived the new aircraft of a vital third pair of eyes ready to spot colleagues' errors.

Airbus has declined to speculate on the cause of the accident, but the company has always stood by the fly-by-wire technology, saying it is much safer than conventional systems.

AIRBUS CRASHES

Monday's Airbus A-320 crash was the third since the plane began service in 1988. Airbus blamed the first two incidents on pilot error.

ABOUT THE AIRBUS A-320

Seats: Up to 179

Introduced: 1988

Made by: Airbus Industrie

Only commercial aircraft that uses computers capable of operating all flight controls

Has twin turbo engines

Designed for short-or medium-range flights

PREVIOUS CRASHES

February 1990: 92 killed as plane prepared for landing in Bangalore, India

June 1988: Three killed during air show at Habsheim, France

Source: News reports