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Plane In French Alps Crash Considered Workhorse Of Commercial Aviation

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And as Eleanor told us, the Germanwings airline has had a good safety record. The same goes for the plane itself, the Airbus A320. NPR's David Schaper reports that it's one of the workhorses of commercial aviation.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The A-320 is a twin-engine jet with a single aisle down the middle. In coach it'll have three seats on either side, and the A-320 can be configured to carry up to 200 passengers.

TODD CURTIS: It's a very widely used plane and very versatile aircraft.

SCHAPER: Todd Curtis is founder of airsafe.com, a website that tracks and provides aircraft safety data.

CURTIS: It's used frequently for fairly short hop flights, for example, New York to Washington, D.C. And it's also capable of taking longer trips.

SCHAPER: The A320 is quite popular among the world's airlines with more than 6,000 in service, and given its heavy use, Curtis says the A320 has a strong safety record. His website ranks it number five among all commercial aircraft. Thomas Anthony, director of the Aviation and Security Program at USC, says when first built in the late 1980s, the A320 was a leader in aircraft modernization.

THOMAS ANTHONY: It was one of the earliest models of highly automated aircraft, with an automated control system - fly-by-wire - and implementing a great deal of composites.

SCHAPER: But because it is so highly automated, Anthony says, there can sometimes be a disconnect between the plane and the pilot.

ANTHONY: And in some cases, it takes a while for the pilot to gain cognizance of what the aircraft is doing because it does so many things in an automated fashion.

SCHAPER: Anthony says U.S. Airways pilot Sully Sullenberger had that kind of a problem when splash-landing his A320 on the Hudson River in January of 2009 after the plane's engine sucked in a flock of geese. But Anthony is not saying there's any indication of such a problem in the crash of the Germanwings plane. Both Anthony and Todd Curtis say there may be a clue in the plane's rapid but apparently controlled descent, which Curtis says was faster than a descent for landing.

CURTIS: It's consistent with the kind of altitude loss you would see in an emergency, such as a loss of cabin pressure.

SCHAPER: Curtis says crews are trained to rapidly bring planes down to an altitude where there is breathable air, which is 10,000 feet or below. But beyond that, he won't speculate about what caused the plane to crash. That investigation will likely take months. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.