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Air France crashes show remarkable survival rates

Air France, now the world's largest airline and long among its most glamorous, has suffered its share of serious crashes in the past 20 years, including the spectacular and tragic crash of a supersonic Concorde and several serious landing accidents, such as the one at Toronto's Pearson Airport two weeks ago.

However, nothing emerges from a review of the seven major Air France accidents since 1985 to indicate any systematic deficiency or pattern of training, maintenance or procedural failures by the airline.

Still, at least one other major accident involved a runway overrun similar to Air France's Flight 358, which landed way too far down the runway at Pearson and then slid into a ravine. Investigations into several other mishaps pointed to flight crew failures, including some on landing.

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By far the worst disaster was the crash of one of the world's handful of Concorde supersonic passenger jets just after takeoff in Paris on July 25, 2000. The disaster was seared into international memory by the video of a doomed Concorde trailing a massive plume of fire as its pilots struggled in vain to coax the crippled craft to nearby Le Bouget airport. Instead, it plunged into a small hotel, killing several people on the ground and all 109 on board.

Concorde, for decades emblematic of Air France's élan and offering a transatlantic service unmatched by any U.S. carrier, was grounded and the crash eventually signalled the end of the Anglo-French supersonic era.

Aside from that crash, Air France's accidents have resulted in stunningly few casualties. All 309 people on board the Airbus A-340 in Toronto escaped before fire engulfed the aircraft, and several other Air France crashes have been notable for remarkable survival rates.

In September of 1993, in an accident with some similarities to the Toronto crash, an Air France Boeing 747 landed in Papeete, Tahiti, after a flight from Los Angeles. The plane failed to stop and slid off the end of the runway, coming to rest with its nose partly submerged in the ocean lapping at the airport perimeter. All 298 passengers and crew survived. There was no fire and that aircraft was eventually repaired and returned to service.

In March of 1999, another Air France Boeing 747 burned after a hard landing in Madras, India. The five crew members escaped the big cargo jet, but after its nose wheel collapsed during the landing, fire engulfed the aircraft.

In June of 1988, a new Air France Airbus A-320, chartered for a French air show, crashed after the pilots allowed the jet to sink into a forest during a low-level demonstration just outside the city of Mulhouse, 400 kilometres east of Paris. All but three of the 136 aboard escaped.

Two years ago, an Air France captain was the sole fatality when a 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet crashed in bad weather about 800 metres short of the runway at Brest, France, about 600 kilometres west of Paris. All 21 passengers, the co-pilot and flight attendant survived, although the fire after the crash destroyed the aircraft. That flight was operated by Brit Air, a regional subsidiary of Air France.

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In another accident that involved no fatalities and no flying, an Airbus A-340, an earlier model of the aircraft that crashed last week in Toronto, burned in Paris. The Air France jet was being hauled from the maintenance hangar when fire broke out on board. The jet was destroyed. It was the first loss of one of the big, long-range, four-engine, Airbus 340s and the only one until last week's crash in Toronto.

Air France, which bought the huge Dutch airline KLM in May of 2004, is now the world's largest airline when measured by revenue; it is the third-largest, after American Airlines and United Airlines, when measured by passenger-kilometres flown. It flies more than 250 jetliners, including most models from the two major manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing.

Its international route structure now dwarfs its U.S. rivals, with flights spanning the globe. The French government still owns 44 per cent of the combined Air France-KLM airline.

More than 40 million passengers flew Air France last year.

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About the Author
International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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