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Air France Concorde Trial – Justice or Judicial Farce?

Dec. 2010 – Back in the September/October 2008 issue of Wings, I devoted my regular column to some comments and thoughts on the trial starting in France regarding the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde.


December 8, 2010
By Rob Seaman

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Dec. 2010 – Back in the September/October 2008 issue of Wings, I devoted my regular column to some comments and thoughts on the trial starting in France regarding the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde. The tragic event killed all on board and four unfortunate bystanders on the ground. As many see it, the event heralded the beginning of the end of flight operations for the first and only commercial supersonic airliner.

At the time I asked quite simply if someone could please explain France’s judicial system and airline industry to me? With the release and announcement on December 6th, 2010 of the results of this trial (or what they called a trial) – I find myself asking the same question again. Here is why – the French judicial system have announced that they have found Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics guilty of manslaughter in the trial. According to the Associated Press (AP) report, “The court in the Paris suburb of Pontoise ruled the Houston-based airline must pay a $265,000 (U.S.) fine, and one of its mechanics, John Taylor, must pay $2,650 over the crash of an Air France Concorde. Mr. Taylor was also handed a 15-month suspended prison sentence. All other defendants, including Mr. Taylor's now-retired supervisor Stanley Ford, were acquitted in the verdict. The court also ordered Continental to pay 1.08-million euros to Air France for moral damages and damage to Air France's reputation.”

Why you ask? Well, according to the report the presiding judge confirmed investigators' long-held belief that titanium debris dropped by a Continental DC-10 onto the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport before the Concorde took off was to blame. Investigators said debris gashed the Concorde's tire, propelling bits of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.

And why Taylor? Well as the court sees it, Taylor should not have used titanium, a harder metal than usual, to build a piece for the DC-10 that is known as a wear strip. He was also accused of improperly installing the piece that fell onto the runway.

Now here is the really interesting part – three former French officials also facing manslaughter charges were acquitted in the whole matter. According to AP, Continental's defence lawyer, Olivier Metzner, has confirmed the carrier will appeal. He denounced a ruling that he called "patriotic" for sparing the French defendants and convicting only the Americans. "This is a ruling that protects only the interests of France. This has strayed far from the truth of law and justice," he said. "This has privileged purely national interests.

The AP report goes on to say that Continental spokesman Nick Britton, in a statement, echoed that sentiment, and said the airline disagreed with the "absurd finding" against it and Taylor.

"Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France," he said, noting that Air France was state-run at the time.

Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots union, said the verdict was "incomprehensible" and asked why blame was heaped on Continental mechanics when French officials were aware of weaknesses on the Concorde around two decades before the crash. "This trial made clear that the Concorde, this superb plane, suffered from severe technical insufficiencies, problems with the fuel tanks that were known since '79," he said outside the courtroom.

The prosecution also requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at former plane maker Aerospatiale. It argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority. While France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been foreseen, a judicial inquiry said the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.

So there you have it – justice (or lack thereof) has been served. It certainly fixes the problem now doesn’t it? Yup, those remaining Concorde and DC-10 aircraft in service will get fixed accordingly to ensure this never happens again. Engineers around the world will be jumping right on that one.

And what have really learned from this? Well I would offer that if you are going to have an aircraft incident or crash, better not do so in France. They are in no way to blame and it will take up to ten years to assign who is – long after the chance for a proper trial or learning experience is possible. But they will assign blame – and after all, is that not what counts the most?
RS


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