French judges drop case against Air France for 2009 crash

Victims’ groups and France’s main pilots’ union plan to appeal.

  • Thursday, September 5, 2019 3:10pm
  • Business

By Sylvie Corbet / Associated Press

PARIS — French judges dropped a decade-long investigation into Air France and planemaker Airbus over the 2009 crash of a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, which killed all 228 people aboard and led to new aircraft safety regulations.

The decision infuriated victims’ groups in France and Brazil that have pushed to bring the case to trial, and believe the airline and jet manufacturer are at least partially responsible.

They plan to appeal, as does France’s main pilots’ union. The judges’ decision not to pursue manslaughter charges against Air France and Airbus was not made public, but suggests they believe the pilots alone were at fault.

Victims’ association FENVAC on Thursday announced the ruling, which was confirmed by a French judicial official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk about the case.

Air France Flight 447 left Rio for Paris but crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. Later, one of history’s most ambitious and costly undersea search operations managed to find the plane’s flight recorders in the Atlantic depths.

The French accident investigation bureau, the BEA, found that external speed sensors were frozen and produced irregular readings on the aircraft, which went into an aerodynamic stall. The captain also wasn’t in the cockpit, one of multiple problems identified at the time of the crash.

Meanwhile, French investigators were working in parallel to the BEA to determine whether to send anyone to trial.

The judges’ decision to drop the case goes against the request of French prosecutors, who wanted Air France to stand trial for manslaughter but had asked to drop the case against Airbus for lack of sufficient evidence.

“We are very angry,” FENVAC director Sophia Seco told The Associated Press, calling the decision to drop the investigation “inexplicable.”

“How dare French justice settle the case of Air France’s deadliest air crash in this way?”

Nelson Marinho, whose 40-year-old son Nelson Marinho Jr. died in the accident, called it “absurd, just absurd” to blame pilots for the tragedy. Speaking to the AP from Rio, Marinho said his victims’ association will take action in response to the judges’ decision, but did not elaborate.

The crash and its fallout rattled the French government, a key shareholder in France’s flagship carrier. Victims’ groups also raised questions about Air France’s relationship with France-based Airbus, in which the French government also has a shareholding.

The crash led to new air safety rules regarding the speed sensors, known as pitot tubes.

An Associated Press investigation in 2009 found that Airbus knew since at least 2002 about problems with the type of speed sensor that malfunctioned on Flight 447, but air safety authorities did not order their replacement until after the crash.

Airbus insists that the plane was airworthy. Critics say the planemaker and airline didn’t take the pitot tubes problems seriously enough.

Airbus and Air France would not comment on the judges’ decision pending an eventual appeal.

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