PARIS Airbus said on Thursday it was urging airlines to switch most speed sensors on about 200 jetliners to U.S.-made parts in the wake of the Atlantic jet disaster, anticipating a European safety order.
The move affects Airbus A330 or A340 planes fitted with sensors manufactured by France's Thales, like the Air France A330 passenger jet which crashed en route from Brazil to Paris on June 1, killing all 228 people on board.
Airlines are being urged to switch at least two thirds of the sensors -- known as pitot probes -- on each plane to parts supplied by U.S. aerospace company Goodrich, which already supplies most of the 1,000-strong A330/A340 fleet.
Confirmation of the switch came after Reuters reported that European safety authorities were drawing up proposals to make such a change compulsory in the wake of the disaster.
"We issued an AIT (Accident Information Telex) a few minutes ago recommending that A330 and A340 operators fit at least two probes supplied by Goodrich," Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said late on Thursday. About 200 of the 1,000 A330s and sister A340s in operation are fitted with Thales sensors, Schaffrath said.
No deadline has been set, though one may be imposed if, as expected, safety authorities make the move compulsory.
Apparently faulty speed sensor readings due to icing may have contributed to the crash but were unlikely to be the sole cause, which remains to be identified, investigators say.
With hopes fading of recovering the aircraft's cockpit recorders, the investigation has focused on a handful of error messages sent out automatically from the aircraft that raise doubts over the speed data given to the pilots.
Some airlines including Air France have already said they are upgrading speed sensors, but the new guidelines mean several may also have to change suppliers.
A spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said earlier it was drawing up a proposal to order airlines to take "precautionary" action on Thales sensors.
The proposal would ban an older type of Thales sensor and limit the use of a newer Thales model to one out of three sensors fitted to each plane, with Goodrich supplying the rest.
Holtgen said EASA had acted in response to the "large amount of information the agency has received over the last couple of weeks on the performance of the three different types of pitot tube currently in operation on Airbus long-range aircraft."
Although Toulouse-based Airbus supplies the airframe and core systems, speed sensors are among a batch of components on which airlines are allowed to choose from competing suppliers.
Three types are available for the A330 and sister A340, a Goodrich sensor which is the standard model for those aircraft, and two alternative models which are supplied by Thales.
There have been several reported incidents of problems with Thales speed sensors, most recently on a flight from Rome to Paris. Most would not have been noticed by passengers.
Thales, a privatized French firm mainly known as Europe's largest defense electronics company, has declined so far to comment on the sensors and did not return calls on Thursday.
New Chief Executive Luc Vigneron said this week that Thales was studying the progress of the crash investigation.
A Goodrich spokeswoman said it was "committed to meeting the needs of the customer."
Airbus plans to help fund an extended search for flight recorders and debris from the Air France crash, French investigators said on Thursday.
Only a small amount of wreckage of the wide-body jet and fewer than a quarter of the victims' bodies have been recovered.
(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, Sophie Hardach; editing by Michael Roddy)