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American Airlines, Airbus spar over crash

US safety board nears decision on 2001 flight

WASHINGTON -- The bitter battle between American Airlines and France-based Airbus over a New York crash in 2001 that killed 265 people has escalated as the US government nears its decision tomorrow on the cause of the second-worst air disaster in US history.

The world's biggest airline has ferociously defended its prestige during a period of unprecedented distress for the industry's domestic giants.

A draft report on the cause of the Flight 587 crash to be considered by the National Transportation Safety Board will focus heavily on crew performance. American pilot training also has been a key issue, as well as the design of the plane's flight-control system.

Airbus, the world's top maker of commercial planes, has aggressively challenged assertions by American Airlines that it concealed design and safety information from the late 1990s that American says might have prevented the Nov. 12, 2001, crash. Airbus also finds itself in the uncomfortable glare of a US crash investigation for the first time, with an advanced design system under scrutiny.

Industry sources say the acrimony between the aviation powerhouses is running unusually high. ''You have a feud going on," a former NTSB member said.

The 150-ton Airbus A300-600 plunged into a residential area of Queens shortly after takeoff from Kennedy Airport, killing all 260 people aboard and five on the ground. The flight had been bound for the Dominican Republic.

The investigation centers on action by copilot Sten Molin to stabilize the misaligned nose of the wide-body after it was buffeted during its climb by turbulence from a jumbo jet flying ahead.

American and Airbus agree only with the government's finding that Molin activated multiple full rudder swings to try to control the plane. It fishtailed before sliding sideways, like a car skidding on a slippery road. The unsustainable buildup of side forces snapped off the tail fin.

American says Molin performed as he was trained, but the severity of the rudder movement was unintentional. The airline said the flight-control system was unexpectedly and dangerously sensitive at high speeds, and it now knows pilots could too easily overuse the rudder and lose control.

''If the NTSB says the pilot use of the rudder was the probable cause, we disagree," said Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for American. ''He's not the cause of this accident."

The rudder is primarily used at low speeds to counter crosswinds during landing or to help steer the plane on the ground. Airbus says that Molin should never have used the rudder to try and stabilize the aircraft and that rudder training at American was inadequate. An Airbus spokesman said the claim of flight-control sensitivity is a ''red herring."

In recent days officials at American also have cited internal Airbus e-mails from a 1997 incident involving another American A300 that indicate certain aerodynamic forces, aggravated by rudder use to regain control of the aircraft, could dangerously stress the tail fin. This information, American says, was never fully disclosed by the manufacturer. But Airbus documents dispute that conclusion as well as renewed assertions by American that Airbus had acted unethically.

''Concerns generated by this incident and the dangers of unnecessary and inappropriate use of rudder were shared by Airbus numerous times in numerous ways with government agencies and American Airlines," said Clay McConnell, an Airbus spokesman.

The safety board cautioned pilots of all aircraft in 2002 on rudder use during certain stages of flight. American has also updated training practices. Airbus has made no changes to its A300-600 rudder system although the board recommended a modification related to the 1997 incident.

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