French court clears Air France, Airbus over Rio-Paris plane crash

PARIS – A French court on Monday cleared European planemaker Airbus and Air France of “involuntary manslaughter,” almost 14 years after an airliner ploughed into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing everyone on board.

The ruling follows an historic public trial over the disappearance of flight AF447 in an equatorial storm on June 1, 2009, with families of some of the 228 victims waging a campaign for justice for more than a decade.

Announcing the verdict, Paris judge Sylvie Daunis listed acts of negligence by both companies but told a packed courtroom that this was not enough to establish a definitive link to France’s worst plane disaster under French criminal law.

“A probable causal link isn’t sufficient to characterize an offence,” the judge said in her 30-minute judgment marking the end of France’s first ever corporate manslaughter trial.

Families greeted the verdict in silence after a sometimes stormy nine-week trial held late last year.

“Our lost ones have died a second time. I feel sick,” said Claire Durousseau, who lost her niece in the 2009 crash.

The head of the main association of families said they were “mortified and overwhelmed” by the verdict, which had followed a “chaotic” legal path stretching over more than a decade.

“The loser first and foremost is French justice,” Daniele Lamy, president of the AF447 victims’ association told journalists in the Paris courthouse.

Both companies had pleaded not guilty to the charges, for which the maximum corporate fine is 225,000 euros (S$327,810). Both are reported to have paid undisclosed civil damages.

The AF447 disaster has been among the most widely debated in aviation and led to a number of technical and training changes.

After a two-year search for the A330’s black boxes using remote submarines, French civil investigators found pilots had responded clumsily to a problem involving iced-up speed sensors and lurched into a freefall without responding to stall alerts.

But the trial also put the spotlight on earlier discussions between Air France and Airbus about growing problems with external “pitot probes” that generate speed readings.

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