French court acquits Air France and Airbus over 2009 Rio-Paris crash

AFP - [email protected]
French court acquits Air France and Airbus over 2009 Rio-Paris crash
Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

A French court on Monday acquitted Air France and plane manufacturer Airbus in a trial over the 2009 crash of a Rio-Paris flight that killed 228 people.


The court said that even if "errors" had been committed, "no certain link of causality" between those shortcomings and the accident "could be proven".

The two France-based companies went on trial in October to determine their responsibility for the worst aviation disaster in Air France's history, which left 228 dead on board flight AF447.

If convicted, the two companies would have risked only a fine of €225,000 but the reputational symbolism is important.

Throughout the trial, representatives of Airbus and Air France maintained the companies were not guilty of criminal wrongdoing.

Their lawyers demanded acquittal, describing this as a "difficult decision from a human point of view, but technically and legally justified".

Prosecutors initially dropped charges against the companies in 2019 in a decision that infuriated victims' families.


A Paris appeals court overturned this decision in 2021 and ordered the trial to go ahead.

At the heart of hearings in Paris has been the role of defective so-called Pitot tubes, which are used to measure the flight speed of aircraft.

The court heard how a malfunction with the tubes, which became blocked with ice crystals during a mid-Atlantic storm, caused alarms to sound in the cockpit of the Airbus A330 and the autopilot system to switch off.

Technical experts highlighted how, after the instrument failure, the pilots put the plane into a climb that caused the aircraft to lose upward lift from the air moving under its wings, thus losing altitude.

"For us, what led the crew to react in the way they did remains a mystery in most respects," Air France representative Pascal Weil, a former test pilot, told the court on November 10th.

Airbus has also blamed pilot error as the main cause for the crash during proceedings.

But lawyers for the families have emphasised how both companies were aware of the Pitot tube problem before the crash, and that the pilots were not trained to deal with a high-altitude emergency of this nature.

The model of Pitot tube used on the doomed Airbus plane, manufactured by French company Thales, was replaced on aircraft worldwide after the accident.

The crash also prompted an overhaul of training protocols across the industry, in particular to prepare pilots to handle the intense stress of unforeseen circumstances.

On October 17th, lawyers and victims' families were allowed to listen to the chilling in-flight voice recording of the pilots' final minutes for the first time.

"We've lost our speeds," one pilot is heard saying before a recorded warning sounds - "stall, stall, stall" - and the aircraft begins to plunge towards the Atlantic Ocean.

It took nearly two years to recover the "black box" flight recorders which were found nearly 4,000 metres below sea level.


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