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Airbus, Air France on trial for 2009 crash

October 10, 2022

Flight AF447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean 13 years ago, killing all 228 people on board. Airbus and Air France are accused of involuntary manslaughter and could face fines of up to $220,000 each.

A part of the flight's tail being recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.
Fuselage of the flight was recovered two years after the crash.Image: AFP/Brazilian Navy

The chief executives of Air France and Airbus pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary corporate manslaughter in a French criminal court on Monday.

The historic trial against the airlines began on Monday, more than 13 years after a plane carrying 228 people plunged into the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Air France Chief Executive Anne Rigail and Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury submitted the plea after the names of all 228 victims were read out in court.

Relatives of people who died during the crash sat in rows and listened in silence while all the names were read out.

Family members of several victims lodged their protests, saying "too little, too late," when the chief executives expressed condolences in their opening statements.

The trial is set to last for nine weeks.

What happened to the flight?

Flight AF447 drowned in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 12 crew members and 216 passengers. 

The plane had headed into an "intertropical convergence zone" that often produces volatile storms with heavy precipitation.

Over the following two years, the fuselage and the black box flight recorders were recovered.

An inquiry found that the crash happened due to errors made when the pilots were disoriented by the Pitot speed-monitoring tubes that had frozen over in a thick cloud.

As a storm engulfed the plane, ice crystals present at high altitudes disabled the pitot tubes, blocking speed and altitude information. The autopilot disconnected.

The crew resumed manual piloting but with the wrong navigation data. As the plane went into an aerodynamic stall, its nose pitched upward and then plunged.

The investigating magistrates had dropped charges against Air France and Airbus, which led to outrage among victims' families. After prosecutors appealed this decision in 2021, a Paris court ruled that there was sufficient evidence for the trial to go ahead.

What is expected in the trial?

Several aviation experts and pilots are due to give testimony in the hearings that will last over two months. If convicted, each company faces a maximum fine of $220,000 (€226,000).

Testimony will also be heard from some of the victims' families, who are civil plaintiffs in the case.

"The message is also to make companies that think they're untouchable understand: 'You're like everyone else and if you make mistakes, they will be punished," Ophelie Toulliou, who lost her brother on the flight, told the AFP news agency.

Air France is accused of not having implemented training in the event of icing of the pitot probes despite the risks.

Airbus is accused of having known that the model of pitot tubes on Flight 447 was faulty, and not doing enough to inform airlines and their crews about it and to ensure training to mitigate the resulting risk.

The crash prompted an overhaul of training protocols across the industry, in particular to prepare pilots to handle the intense stress of unforeseen circumstances. Pilots are also now required to continually practice stall responses on simulators.

Nelson Marinho, who lost his son in the accident, is angry that no company executives will be tried.

"They have changed various directors, both at Airbus and Air France, so who will they arrest? No one. There won't be justice. That's sadly the truth,'' he told the AP news agency.

rm, tg/fb (dpa, AFP, AP)