Air France, Airbus face trial in Paris over fatal 2009 Rio-Paris crash

By AFP   October 9, 2022 | 11:05 pm PT
Air France, Airbus face trial in Paris over fatal 2009 Rio-Paris crash
Wreckage of the Air France Airbus A330 being unloaded at the port of Recife in Brazil on June 14, 2009. Photo by AFP
Air France and Airbus will face trial starting Monday in Paris, 13 years after the crash of an A330 shortly after takeoff from Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the deaths of 228 people. Civil parties hope to get answers from the two aviation giants, who both still deny responsibility for the disaster.

After more than 10 years of proceedings and a reversal of the court's decision to dismiss the case, Air France and Airbus will be tried on charges of "involuntary manslaughter". From Monday, the two aeronautical giants will appear before the Paris criminal court. They will face the families of the 228 passengers and crew members who died onboard flight AF447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it crashed on June 1, 2009.

Civil parties, who have been caught up for a decade in a judicial labyrinth of expertise and counter-expertise reports requested by Airbus, have been long awaiting this extraordinary trial.

"We are both impatient and a little anxious for this trial to begin", says Danièle Lamy, president of the association Entraide et Solidarité AF447, who lost her son in the tragedy. "Even though this will plunge us back into an extremely painful moment, this trial is absolutely essential for honoring the memory of those lost and for the families," she added.

"The families of the victims want the company and the European manufacturer to be found guilty," says Sébastien Busy, a lawyer representing several civil parties. "So far, no one has been found responsible, and the two parties involved consider that this accident was simply a series of unlucky mishaps."

For the 476 civil parties, however, the tragedy that took place over the Atlantic was instead the result of a pattern of malfunctions, negligence and a wait-and-see approach on the part of Airbus and Air France.

'The trial of the dead'

The Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis (BEA), a French government agency responsible for investigating aviation accidents and incidents, conducted a series of investigations and in July 2012 established the series of human and technical failures that led to the crash.

On May 31, 2009, the Airbus A330 chartered by Air France took off from Rio de Janeiro en route to Paris. Upon leaving Brazil’s coastline the pilots encountered a frequent meteorological phenomenon known as the "doldrums", a thunderstorm area that causes severe turbulence and cold temperatures.

In these extreme conditions, frost formed on the Pitot probes, which are nickel tubes located at the front of the aircraft that continuously provide information regarding the aircraft's speed. As a result, the pilots received false data about the aircraft’s speed from the faulty probes and so believed that the aircraft was losing altitude.

Two years after the crash, the discovery of the aircraft’s black boxes uncovered flight conversations that revealed a lack of understanding within the cockpit. At the time, the pilots had not received adequate training to deal with this kind of situation.

To regain altitude, they pulled back on the control column to pitch the plane up, which seemed to be the most logical thing do in the circumstances. The manoeuvre proved fatal, as the plane's nose was too high and its speed too low. The plane reached 38,000 feet, lost its lift in the air and fell like a stone. The "STALL" alarm sounded and in less than four minutes, the A330 had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

During the trial, Airbus is expected to insist once again that the crash was caused by pilot error so that it can absolve itself of any responsibility. "The trial is being held for the dead, who cannot defend themselves," says Jean-Claude Guidicelli, who represents the father of Clara Amado, a flight attendant who died in the crash. "But in the hierarchy of responsibility, there is first Airbus, which should have changed the Pitot probes."

Airbus's wait-and-see attitude

"We see the main culprit as Airbus, which underestimated the risk linked to the probes freezing and did not take into account the incidents that had taken place in the year preceding the crash," said Busy. "It seems that Airbus waited, hoping that nothing would happen."

One year before the Rio-Paris crash, some 20 incidents linked to frozen probes had indeed been recorded and brought to the manufacturer’s attention. These occurrences were considered serious enough to push certain companies such as Air Caraïbes and XL Airways to replace the French-made Thalès probes with those made by U.S. manufacturer Goodrich.

Why didn’t Air France do the same? According to the BEA, the airline company had expressed concern about these failures to Airbus.

"Air France wanted to keep Thalès because it is a French company," says Guidicelli, who believes that "lives were sacrificed on the altar of money and business". After the disaster, the model in question was replaced worldwide.

During the nine weeks of the trial, one question in particular will be brought up repeatedly: could this accident have been avoided? The civil parties are convinced that it could have: Airbus was blinded by an unbounded faith in the reliability of its A330, and Air France, for its part, should have better informed its crews about the incidents in which Pitot probes had malfunctioned.

But after 10 years of proceedings, some of the victims' families doubt that they will get the answers to the questions haunting them. "We risk witnessing a new game of ping-pong between Air France and Airbus, who are blaming each other," says Guidicelli.

"Airbus would re-establish some honor for itself, were it to acknowledge its share of responsibility for the accident," said Danièle Lamy from the Entraide et Solidarité AF447 association.

If the court finds them liable, Air France and Airbus may have to pay fines of up to €225,000. The trial is due to end on December 8.

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