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Airline Industry focuses on safety

The world aviation industry gathers for the Paris Air Show with low expectations of big-money deals, but plenty of attention on air safety in the wake of the recent Air France crash. For Airbus, reassuring airlines that its A330 model – the same one that plunged into the Atlantic last month with 228 people on board – is a reliable plane isn’t just about making passengers feel safe. The A330, a workhorse of airlines world-wide, is one of Airbus’s best-selling models. The jetliner, which has a catalog price of around $190 million, is also one of Airbus’s most profitable; and it has orders outstanding for some 400 more. Airlines and leasing companies so far have stood behind the two-engine A330 and its four-engine twin, the A340. There are nearly 1,000 of the two models, which were certified in 1993 and have operated largely without trouble, in service today.

Scandinavian carrier SAS AB Friday became the latest airline to issue a statement affirming the safety of its A330s and A340s, following endorsements from carriers including Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Dubai’s Emirates Airline.

Any dents to the plane’s reputation could hurt the ability of Airbus – and its parent company European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. – to cover several billion dollars in cost overruns on new models in development. It could also hurt the overall airlines business, which is already coping with plunging demand.

Worries about safety come amid general economic gloom. The aerospace industry is bracing for a sharp drop in jetliner orders this year and a potential slide in production.

The crash of Air France flight 447 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris is unusual because the plane disappeared while cruising high over the Atlantic Ocean. Almost two weeks after the accident, few clues have emerged as to why.

Naval crews have so far collected 44 victims and much debris, and searchers are scouring the region for the plane’s "black boxes," which may sit on the sea bed. Without recordings of flight-data and cockpit conversations on the units, investigators may never fully understand the four-year-old plane’s final minutes.

On Friday, Brazilian officials displayed recovered wreckage in Recife that included an oxygen mask, torn chunks of the plane’s frame and an interior wall with two seats still attached.

A Brazilian air force official said the search for bodies would continue for another week. The condition of the victims’ bodies, including any burn marks, could help investigators understand what brought the plane down.

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders this week publicly stressed the A330’s strong safety record and urged patience with the investigations. "These investigations can take months," Mr. Enders said.

Behind the scenes, Airbus has updated airlines with initial conclusions of the investigation, which Airbus said indicated nothing was fundamentally wrong with the plane. But as with many accidents, the crash has focused new attention on the model and spotlighted incidents that otherwise would be little noticed. An A330 operated by a subsidiary of Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd. made an emergency landing in Guam on Thursday due to a small fire in the cockpit that caused no injuries.

Qantas officials stressed that the incident was "completely unrelated" to the Air France crash and the airline has "full confidence" in the A330.

Airlines badly want the planes to get a clean bill of health. Steven Udvar-Hazy, chairman of aircraft-leasing giant International Lease Finance Corp., said that among more than 20 airlines flying ILFC’s A330s, many find it the "most profitable and flexible airplane in their fleet."

ILFC "has total confidence" in the A330, Mr. Udvar-Hazy said. ILFC, a unit of American International Group Inc., is the largest owner of A330s, with 97 of the model, according to Airbus.

Over recent years, the A330 supplanted U.S. rival Boeing Co.’s 767 as the industry’s top-selling long-range model in the 250-seat range. Boeing officials have said that the 767 was previously their most profitable model – exceeding even their more prominent 747 jumbo jet.

Potentially adding to demand from airlines, EADS hopes to sell dozens of A330s to the U.S. Air Force as midair refueling tankers in a competition against Boeing. Reliability concerns about the A330 could damage EADS’s chances, analysts say.

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