PARIS (AFP) – Air France and aircraft maker Airbus go on trial in Paris tomorrow on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 crash of a flight from Brazil, killing all 228 people aboard.
The case focusses on alleged insufficient pilot training and a defective speed monitoring probe, which was quickly replaced on planes worldwide in the months after the accident.
Flight AF 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plunged into the Atlantic Ocean during a storm in the early hours of June 1, 2009, when it stalled after entering a zone of strong turbulence.
The Airbus A330 was carrying 12 crew members and 216 passengers, including 61 French. It was the carrier’s deadliest crash.
Debris was found in the following days but it took nearly two years to locate the bulk of the fuselage and recover the “black box” flight recorders.
Air France and Airbus were charged as the inquiry progressed, with experts determining the crash resulted from mistakes made by pilots disorientated by so-called Pitot speed-monitoring tubes that had frozen over in thick cloud.
Both companies have denied any criminal negligence, and investigating magistrates overseeing the case dropped the charges in 2019, attributing the crash mainly to pilot error.
That decision infuriated victims’ families, and in 2021 a Paris appeals court ruled there was sufficient evidence to allow a trial to go ahead. “Air France… will continue to demonstrate that it did not commit any criminal negligence that caused this accident, and will request an acquittal,” the airline said in a statement.
Airbus, maker of the A330 jet that had been put into service just four years before the accident, declined to comment ahead of the trial but has also denied any criminal negligence.
They each face a maximum fine of EUR225,000 (USD220,000).
The court will hear testimony from dozens of aviation experts and pilots, along with second-by-second details of the final minutes in the cockpit before the plane went into free-fall.
Testimony will also be heard from some of the victims’ family members, 476 of whom are civil plaintiffs in the case.
“It’s going to be a very technical trial… but our goal is also to re-introduce the human element,” said lawyer for the victims’ group Entraide et Solidarite (Mutual Aid and Solidarity) Alain Jakubowicz.
Its president, Daniele Lamy, said that instead of trying to pin the blame on the pilots, “We want this trial to be that of Airbus and Air France. We expect an impartial and exemplary trial so that this never happens again, and that as a result the two defendants will make safety their priority instead of only profitability,” she said.
But President of the Brazilian association of victims’ relatives Nelson Faria Marinho said, “I’m not expecting anything from this trial.” His 40-year-old son, also named Nelson, perished on his way to an oil industry job in Angola.
“Even if there is a conviction, who will be punished? The CEOs? They were changed at Airbus and Air France a long time ago,” he told AFP during an interview at his Rio home.
Despite having travelled to France 18 times to meet authorities and investigators, Faria Marinho will not be at the trial.
He will be represented by former French pilot Gerard Arnoux, who has advised several of the victims’ families and wrote a book titled Rio-Paris Is Not Responding: AF447, the Crash that Should Not Have Happened.