The families of victims of France’s worst air disaster said they were devastated after a Paris court cleared Air France and Airbus of manslaughter charges over the 2009 crash that caused the deaths of 228 people.
Giving its verdict on Monday, the court said that if there had been faults committed, “no certain causal link” with the accident had been demonstrated.
David Koubbi, a lawyer for the families of a number of passengers, said the court’s ruling was “incomprehensible”.
“It is a signal that you can kill 228 people in an air crash and nobody is at fault. The families that I represent are devastated, and this has prevented them from mourning their loved ones,” Koubbi said after the hearing.
Koubbi said that while the two companies had been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, the court had found in the families’ favour in a separate civil case, declaring Air France and Airbus jointly responsible for faults and opening the way to damages for the victims’ families. The exact amount of compensation will be announced in September.
“The court has decided that while no blame can be apportioned in criminal law, under civil law Air France and Airbus committed four faults and are responsible for damages,” Koubbi said.
The verdict followed a nine-week trial last year, at the end of which the public prosecutors’ office had suggested it was impossible to prove that either company was to blame.
At the opening of the trial in October, there were angry outbursts from the victims’ families as the chief executives of Air France and Airbus pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and offered their condolences.
Flight AF447 was en route overnight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it disappeared off the radar in the middle of a storm over the Atlantic on 1 June 2009. It took four minutes and 24 seconds for the plane to fall 11,500 metres out of the night sky, during which the stall warning sounded 75 times, according to cockpit recordings.
The plane’s speed sensors, known as pitot tubes, were said to have iced up, turning off the autopilot, sending confusing information to the crew and setting off a catastrophic chain of events in the cockpit.
The case was the first time companies, as opposed to individuals, had been directly held to account in a trial after an air crash in France. Lawyers for passengers’ families battled for years to have their day in court. A 2019 decision to abandon the case, because investigators were unable to establish who was to blame, was overturned.
Air France and Airbus denied the accusations that their negligence had led to the crash. Airbus blames pilot error for the crash, while Air France claims alarms confused the pilots.
Days after the flight disappeared, debris was spotted floating in the ocean. But it took almost two years and a €31m (£27m) search to locate what remained of the plane on the seabed and recover the black box flight data and voice recorders. Only then could France’s air investigation agency (BEA) begin piecing together what had caused the crash.
The trial focused on a key question: why the flight crew of three, with more than 20,000 hours of flying experience between them, failed to understand that the plane had lost lift or “stalled” and was not rising but falling.
France’s air investigations authority, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), said the crew had responded incorrectly to the icing problem but also had not had the training needed to fly manually at high altitude after the autopilot dropped out. It also highlighted inconsistent signals from a display called the flight director, which has since been redesigned to switch itself off in such events to avoid confusion.
The pilots could have saved the plane after it temporarily lost its speed readings. Instead of pushing the aircraft down, they had done the opposite of what was required, pulling it up to a height at which it stalled and fell from the sky at 10,000ft a minute, the BEA concluded.
Air France defended its pilots in a statement released at the same time as the report was made public, saying the attitude alert system had malfunctioned.
The flight captain, Marc Dubois, 58, had been resting when the Airbus began encountering turbulence, leaving co-pilots David Robert, 37, and Pierre-Cedric Bonin, 32, in the cockpit.
Bonin was at the controls when the speed sensors failed. When the autopilot reacted to the confused readings by disconnecting itself and handing control of the plane to the pilot, he reportedly hauled the aircraft up to 37,500ft in an apparent attempt to slow it down. As a consequence, the A330’s stall warning sounded, meaning that the plane’s aerodynamics were not generating enough lift even though its twin engines were working normally.
Robert, Bonin’s co-pilot at the time, supposedly checklisting the emergency procedures, lost precious seconds calling the captain and failed to correct his colleague’s error as the plane plunged towards the sea, said the report. Dubois returned to the cockpit seconds before the crash but was unable to save the situation as the plane hit the water.