More than thirteen years after the Rio-Paris flight accident that killed 228 people, Airbus and Air France will go on trial starting Monday (10) in the French capital. The trial will run until December 8.
The accident of flight AF447, which was en route Rio-Paris, occurred on June 1, 2009. The aircraft crashed 3 hours and 45 minutes after takeoff and caused the death of 216 passengers and 12 crew members. On July 5, 2012, the BEA, the French civilian agency that investigated the tragedy, released its final report on the disaster, holding the pilots responsible for the loss of control of the Airbus A330 after a succession of technical failures.
The problems began with the freezing of the speed sensors, the Pitot probes, manufactured by the company Thales, which led to a temporary inconsistency between the measured speeds, confusing the pilots. BEA experts say, however, that the pilots could have avoided the accident and the loss of lift (stall). The category’s union alleged that the professionals had never been trained to face such a situation.
In court, after several expert opinions, the investigating judges dismissed the case on August 29, 2019, but the victims’ families and pilots’ unions filed an appeal on May 12, 2021. The Chamber of Instruction of the Paris Court of Appeals decided to review the criminal case for involuntary manslaughter of the two companies.
More than fifty relatives of the victims were in the packed room of the Paris correctional court, where the three magistrates read the names of the dead in half. Shortly before, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury and Air France CEO Anne Rigail heard the charges against the two companies, surrounded by their lawyers.
“They keep telling us that the air system, air transport, has safety as its motto. In this case, we see that sometimes safety is left aside,” said Sébastien Busy, lawyer for the victims’ relatives. For the lawyer, his clients’ goal is twofold: “to obtain the judicial truth, to understand what exactly happened that night.”
The president of the victims’ relatives association Entraide et Solidarité AF447, Danièle Lamy, hopes that this process, after a “legal battle,” “will be the judgment of Airbus and Air France” and not “that of the pilots.” “We are waiting for an impartial and exemplary trial, so that this does not happen again and that, through this trial, the two defendants put air safety and not just profitability at the center of their concerns,” she added.
For the pilots’ union of the Air France group (SPAF), it is “important that a court can hear all parties and pronounce on the different responsibilities during a public trial, where the importance of flight safety will be highlighted.”
Air France “cherishes the memory of the victims of this terrible accident and expresses its deepest sympathy to all their loved ones,” according to a statement released by the company. The company “will continue to demonstrate that it committed no criminal offense at the origin of the accident.” European manufacturer Airbus, which declined to comment ahead of the trial, also rejects any criminal liability.
The plane was carrying passengers of 33 different nationalities and 476 family members make up the civilian party. Five days will be dedicated to those who want to testify in court. Several experts and pilots are expected to testify during the trial: the 31st chamber of the Paris court will have to determine whether Airbus and Air France, which could be ordered to pay a fine of 225,000 euros, committed errors that culminated in the accident.
For the Court of Appeal, there are sufficient charges against Air France, which “refrained from carrying out adequate training” in the face of the probes’ freeze, “which prevented the pilots from reacting as necessary.” Airbus was accused of having “underestimated the severity of the failures of the speed sensors installed on the A330 aircraft by not taking all measures to urgently inform the crews of the operating companies and contribute to their effective training.”
Several failures of these probes were recorded in the months before the accident. After the disaster, the model was replaced all over the world. The tragedy also led to other technical modifications in the aeronautical field and reinforced training in stall, as well as in crew stress.
Flight AF447 accident had impact on improving air safety
Regardless of the verdict of the trial of Air France and Airbus in the case of the accident of flight AF447, which begins this Monday (10) in Paris, the tragedy has already had an important impact on improving air safety in the world. The plane, which was on the Rio de Janeiro-Paris route, crashed on June 1, 2009 in the Atlantic Ocean, killing 228 people.
For experts and aviation professionals interviewed by La Croix newspaper, few accidents have caused such an important evolution in safety procedures. In addition to material improvements, the catastrophe also raised questions about pilot training.
On the night of the tragedy, the Pitot speed probes present on the Airbus A330, which allow pilots to control the speed of the plane, froze and sent incoherent information to the pilots. But since the crash, international regulations on these instruments have evolved.
Today, an emergency speed evaluation system that does not depend on sensors exists on all aircraft, recalls aeronautics consultant Xavier Tytelman, interviewed by La Croix newspaper. In addition, the latest-generation aircraft also have speed sensors in their engines, and the probes used must be manufactured by different manufacturers.
Pilot education and training have also been thoroughly revised. Flight simulation sessions put pilots in situations that were practically impossible and unforeseen by the manufacturers. Most companies have also started to consider the human factor when facing abnormal or emergency situations.
For experts, the Rio-Paris drama, the worst in Air France’s history, has raised aviation safety to an exceptional level.
Le Figaro newspaper highlights the tenacity of the victims’ relatives, who managed to put two of France’s largest companies in the dock.
In 2019, the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance dismissed the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against Air France and Airbus, which caused the families to revolt and appeal the decision.
In May 2021 the Paris Court of Second Instance ordered the construction company and the airline to return to court for manslaughter.
Rio-Paris flight: “I’m in this fight for the people who still travel on that killer plane,” says Brazilian
Thirteen years after one of the most striking tragedies in civil aviation, a new – and probably last – lawsuit will begin on Monday (10) about the responsibilities for the crash of the plane that made flight AF 447, between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, in May 2009. The manufacturer Airbus and the airline Air France are accused in the lawsuit filed in the Paris Correctional Court. But for the father of one of the Brazilian victims, the case “is going nowhere” because, in his opinion, France protects both companies.
Despite the pain that the case causes to this day, Nelson Marinho promises to “go all the way” for the memory of his son, one of the 228 victims of the accident. The Airbus A330 crashed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after the aircraft’s pilots were unable to regain control of the plane after receiving mismatched information about the aircraft’s speed due to the aircraft’s external probes freezing.
“France is very corporate. It defends tooth and nail Airbus, Air France, which is also state-owned. We’re not getting anywhere,” Nelson laments, by phone. “They insist on flying with a defective plane, which so far has not been fixed. Even if the French courts beat the hammer in favor of the cause, nobody will be arrested, because the directors have already changed, and nobody will be punished for this. Who was punished are the people who were on that flight and who lost their lives, and the family members who are left with a pain forever. It’s insurmountable,” he criticizes.
In 2021, the Paris Court of Appeals ordered that the two companies be tried for “culpable homicide. The prosecution argued that the “indirect causes” of the accident were attributable to failures by the two aviation giants: while Air France “refrained from imposing the necessary training and information” on the crew, Airbus “underestimated the seriousness of the defects in the Pitot probes” that measure speed, and did not act sufficiently to correct them,” the prosecution pointed out.
“I am in this fight for the people who still travel on that killer plane, because it continues to fly,” Marinho denounced. “I lost a son, we can’t even put into words what this is. I don’t want people to go through the same problem that I went through and am going through.
Marinho says that the families of the Brazilian victims continue to be informed about the developments of the case, through the association he leads. But most of them are making an effort to turn the page on the accident once and for all.
“There was even suicide. One lady couldn’t take it. It’s very dramatic,” says Marinho. “I face this because I promised myself and my son that I will go to the end. But it is very difficult for Brazilians to follow [the new process in France]. The ticket to Paris is R$5,000,” he says.
“Saying it was the pilots’ mistake is very easy”
The Brazilian victims’ association has technical advice from a former Air France pilot, Gérard Arnoux, who will follow the hearings in the audience. The families of the three pilots of AF 447, who were held solely responsible in the case closed in 2019, have constituted themselves as civil parties – as have a total of 476 family members – and may be called to testify.
Marinho’s two other daughters live in France and will also try to attend the sessions. “To say it was the pilots’ mistake is very easy. If I give you a machine that doesn’t work right, you won’t be able to operate it as it should,” Keiko Marinho stressed to RFI. “It’s like I owe it to my brother to complete this mourning. There isn’t a single day that I wake up and don’t think of him. He was my best friend,” she says, without holding back her tears.
The passengers, flight attendants and pilots on board the aircraft were of 34 different nationalities. Among them, 22 were German. Alexander Crolow’s mother Barbara plans to attend the hearings in the French capital.
“For me, it’s a question of morals and ethics, not money. Big companies also need to be held accountable for what they do,” she stressed.
Barbara acknowledges that the nine weeks of proceedings will be tough to endure, but she says she is “relieved” that the French prosecutor’s office has decided to reopen the case.
After a long succession of expert opinions, the investigating judges dismissed the case on August 29, 2019. Outraged, relatives of the victims and pilots’ unions appealed, and on May 12, 2021, the Court of Instruction decided to prosecute the two companies for manslaughter.
Focus on technical details
The lawyer for the French victims’ association Entraide et Solidarité, Sébastien Buzy, said he expects Airbus and Air France will try to turn the hearings into an even more complex technical debate, hoping to be cleared of liability and “hush up the case.”
“The role of the victims’ families and the prosecution will be to focus the debate on the faults that Airbus and Air France may have had and try to explain them clearly,” the advocate explained to RFI.
Contacted by the report, the two companies chose not to give interviews. The trial is expected to begin on December 8.
Until then, many experts and pilots will have to give their opinions: the 31st chamber of the Paris court will have to determine whether Airbus and Air France, which incur a fine of 225,000 euros, made mistakes that led to the accident.
Pitot probe failures were recorded in the months before the crash. After the disaster, the affected model was replaced all over the world.
The tragedy also led to other technical modifications in the aeronautical field and reinforced training when the plane loses lift, as well as stress management for the crew.
*** Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) ***