After a Paris court exonerated Air France and Airbus of manslaughter charges related to the 2009 crash that took the lives of 228 people, the families of the victims of France’s worst aviation accident said they were devastated.
On Monday, the court stated that even if mistakes had been made, “no certain causal link” to the tragedy had been established.
Attorney David Koubbi described the court’s decision as “incomprehensible” on behalf of the relatives of many passengers.
“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.
While the two companies were cleared of any criminal culpability, according to Koubbi, the court concluded in the families’ favor in a separate civil case, holding Air France and Airbus jointly liable for mistakes and opening the way for payments for the relatives of the victims.
In September, the precise compensation sum will be revealed.
“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 decision came after a nine-week trial that ended with the public prosecutors’ office suggesting it was impossible to establish the guilt of either firm.
When the trial began in October, the main executives of Air France and Airbus pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and extended their sympathies, prompting heated outbursts from the families of the dead.
On June 1, 2009, flight AF447 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it vanished off the radar in the midst of an Atlantic storm.
According to cockpit recordings, the stall warning sounded 75 times as the plane descended 11,500 meters from the night sky in four minutes and 24 seconds.
According to reports, the plane’s speed sensors, known as pitot tubes, allegedly froze up, disabling the autopilot, sending the crew conflicting information, and precipitating a disastrous series 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 drop the case was overturned because investigators were unable to determine who was at fault.
The claims that Air France and Airbus were negligent and caused the tragedy were refuted. Air France contends that the pilots were misled by alarms, whereas Airbus attributes the accident to pilot error.
Debris from the flight was discovered floating in the ocean days after it vanished. However, it took nearly two years and a €31 million (£27 million) search to find the plane’s wreckage on the ocean floor and recover the black boxes with the flight data and voice recorders. Only then could France’s air investigation agency (BEA) begin piecing together what had caused the crash.
The main focus of the trial was on why the flight crew of three, with a combined total of more than 20,000 hours in the air, was unable to recognize that the plane had lost lift or “stalled” and was falling rather than ascending.
The crew did not react appropriately to the icing issue, according to France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), and they also lacked the training necessary to fly manually at a high altitude in the event that the autopilot failed.
It also drew attention to erroneous signals from a flight director display, which has since been modified to turn itself off in such circumstances to prevent confusion.
The moment the plane’s speed readings were temporarily lost, the pilots had a chance to save it. The BEA came to the conclusion that instead of lowering the aircraft down as needed, they had actually done the reverse, dragging it up to a height at which it stalled and fell from the sky at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.
In a statement made available at the same time the investigation was made public, Air France defended its pilots and claimed the attitude alarm system had failed.
When the Airbus encountered turbulence, flight captain Marc Dubois, 58, was sleeping; co-pilots David Robert, 37, and Pierre-Cedric Bonin, 32, remained 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.
Because of this, the A330’s stall alarm sounded, indicating that even if its twin engines were operating normally, the aerodynamics of the aircraft were not producing enough lift.
The investigation said that Robert, Bonin’s co-pilot at the time, wasted valuable seconds calling the captain and neglected to correct his colleague’s mistake as the plane descended towards the water. Robert was allegedly checking off the emergency procedures.
Just before the disaster, Dubois went back to the cockpit but was unable to intervene as the plane hit the sea.