Air France and Airbus face angry families in AF447 crash trial

PARIS (Reuters) – A French criminal court has opened a landmark trial of Air France’s manslaughter (AIRF.PA) Aircraft maker Airbus (AIR.PA) On Monday, with angry relatives demanding justice 13 years after the A330 crashed in the Atlantic, killing all on board.

The heads of the two companies have pleaded their innocence of “manslaughter” after officials read the names of the 228 people who died when an AF447 crashed into darkness during a tropical storm en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.

Many relatives shouted protests as Air France first CEO Anne Regel and then Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury expressed condolences during opening statements, with the latter’s comments prompting chants of “shame” and “too little, too late”.

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“For 13 years we have been waiting for this day and preparing for a long time,” Danielle Lamy, who lost her son in the accident, told Reuters before the hearing.

After two years of searching for the black boxes of the A330 using remote submarines, investigators found that the pilots incorrectly responded to a problem with icy speed sensors and plunged into free fall without responding to “stop” alerts.

But the French accident agency BEA also revealed previous discussions between Air France and Airbus about growing problems with external “pitot probes” that generate speed readings.

Summing up the prosecution’s findings, a judge in Paris said Airbus was suspected of reacting too slowly to the growing number of speeding accidents with the introduction of an updated investigation.

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Meanwhile, preliminary findings have raised questions about the airline’s efforts to ensure pilots are well trained.

The relative roles of the pilot and sensors will be central to the experiment, revealing the bitter divisions that have raged behind the scenes between two of France’s leading companies for more than a decade.

Airbus blames pilot error for the crash, while the French carrier claims the pilots were overwhelmed by alarms and confusing data.

Lawyers have warned that the long-awaited trial – which is moving forward after the decision to drop the case was overturned – should be allowed to sideline relatives of the 33 nationalities represented in AF447, most of them French, Brazilians and Germans.

“It is a trial where the victims must remain the focus of the debate. We do not want Airbus or Air France to turn this trial into a conference of engineers,” said lawyer Sebastien Bossi.

It is the first time that French companies have been prosecuted for “manslaughter” in the wake of a plane crash. Victims’ families say individual managers should be in the dock.

Relatives also ignored the maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($22,0612) each airline could receive – just two minutes of Airbus’ pre-COVID-19 revenue or five minutes of the airline’s passenger revenue. Larger, undisclosed amounts of damages or out-of-court settlements were also paid.

The families’ lawyer, Alan Jakubowicz, said: “They will not worry about 225 thousand euros. Their reputation .. that is what is at stake for (Air France and Airbus).”

“For us, it is about something else, the truth…and ensuring that lessons are learned from all these great disasters,” he said. “This experience is about restoring the human dimension.”

The trial, which lasted nine weeks, continues at the Paris Criminal Court on December 8.

Training and systems in the spotlight

The AF447 sparked a rethinking of training and technology and is seen as one of the few accidents that changed aviation, including industry-wide improvements in regaining lost control.

Center stage is the mystery of why the three-man crew, with more than 20,000 hours of flying experience between them, failed to understand that their modern aircraft lost lift or “stalled.”

This required a basic maneuver of pushing the nose down rather than pulling it up as they did in many killer four-minute dives into the Atlantic in a radar dead zone.

France’s BAA said the crew incorrectly responded to the ice problem, but did not receive the training needed to fly manually at high altitudes after the autopilot withdrew.

It also highlighted inconsistent cues from a screen called Flight Manager, which has since been redesigned to stop itself at such events to avoid confusion.

“It will be a difficult experience and we are here to offer sympathy … but also our contribution to truth and understanding,” Airbus CEO Faury told reporters.

Regel expressed his “deepest sympathy” after telling the court that Air France would never forget its worst accident.

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Grieving the loss of his daughter in the AF447, retired German CEO Bernd Jans likened the crash – with his focus on humans versus machines – to the recent safety crisis on the Boeing 737 Max.

“They changed the world and the public’s view of these big companies and (regulatory) bodies, which have great power but should be used,” he said.

“They cannot restore confidence in such statements.”

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Tim Heaver reports. Editing by Kirsten Donovan

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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