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Seaman: Justice in France

Could someone please explain France’s judicial system and airline industry to me? I am having a hard time getting my brain wrapped around France’s idea of justice and due process.


October 8, 2008
By Rob Seaman

Topics

Guess I just don’t get the world some days

Could someone please explain France’s judicial system and airline industry to me? I am having a hard time getting my brain wrapped around France’s idea of justice and due process.

What has got me off on this tangent? The Air France Concorde accident of 2000. It is eight years since this tragedy occurred and we are just now hearing that there is going to be a court case over it. What is going to be gained by a trial at this date? And more specifically, look at who they are bringing up on the charges – two employees from Continental Airlines, two employees at Aerospatiale and a fellow from the French civil aviation authority. Why these folks in particular?

Post-crash investigations concluded that the SST’s tires were punctured by a piece of “metal” on the runway. The source of the metal was attributed to a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had just taken off prior to Air France Concorde Flight 4590. In a terrible chain of events that followed, the tires shredded and a large chunk of the left main impacted the belly of the aircraft and punched a hole in a fuel tank. The fuel ignited, leaving a stream of fire from behind the Concorde as it tried to gain altitude and then set up for landing. The flight crew upon detecting the fire shut down the number two engine, but the aircraft was unable to climb on the three remaining engines. It crashed into a hotel and all the passengers and crew as well some people on the ground – 113 in all – were killed.

In 2004 a French accident inquiry reported that the piece of metal which had fallen from the DC-10 was a titanium wear strip from
one of the engine nacelles. The investigation concluded the wear strip should have been made from aluminum and that in the result, it being a softer metal, the tire would not have been punctured or the Concorde so critically damaged.

Part of the French prosecutor’s claim as well is that the fuel tanks of the Concorde lacked sufficient protection from shock. Further to this they feel the builders of the aircraft had known this since as far back as 1979. Accordingly the individuals named by the French to stand trial are a Continental mechanic, who is alleged to have fitted the metal strip to the DC-10, a Continental maintenance official, the former head of the Concorde division of Aerospatiale (which is now part of EADS), a former chief engineer for the Concorde program and a now former member of France’s civil aviation oversight board who was tasked with being head of training back then.

Why focus on these individuals only? Surely there were more people involved in the various decisions or actions implied than just these five? It seems that the French have decided that someone is going to get it for this, and these gentlemen are as good as any – or perhaps the easiest to hit on?

For their part, Continental has long denied any responsibility for the accident and many aviation experts have long debated the reasons for the incident too – so that piece of metal may not be the culprit after all. And is this the only DC-10 to have the wear strip in titanium and the only one to ever fall off on a runway? We certainly have not heard of other shredded tires from such a thing. Or perhaps it is an industry-wide cover-up scam and the French have managed to blow the top off it?

Notice too that nobody from Air France seems to have been implicated or charged. Surely if Aerospatiale felt there was a potential hazard with the fuel tanks, then Air France would have known or suspected it too. If that is so, then shouldn’t the airline engineers also be held responsible? The Concorde was a program where the OEM and airlines worked very closely. It would be strange for something of this magnitude to be kept internal to the OEM only.

Here is another quirk of the whole story – Air France said it was suing Continental just months after the incident. Pretty quick to jump and point the finger then, weren’t they? But look at the length of time it has taken to get around to having such a trial. Is it even needed?

As I see it, nothing is to be learned or changed to prevent a similar incident. It’s just another case of trying to lay blame and shift the guilt onto somebody else.

The trial is due to start “sometime” in 2009 and may last many months. Do you really think these poor guys are going to get a fair shake out of all this?