A French court on Monday acquitted Airbus and Air France of manslaughter charges over the 2009 crash of Flight 447 from Rio to Paris, prompting an outpouring of anguish from people whose loved ones were killed in a disaster that led to lasting changes in aircraft safety measures.
Some erupted in sobs, others listened in stunned silence as the presiding judge read out the decision, a devastating defeat for families of the 228 victims, who fought for 13 years to see the case reach court.
The three-judge panel ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence of a direct link between decisions by the companies and the crash. The official investigation found that multiple factors contributed to the disaster, including pilot error and the icing over of external sensors called pitot tubes.
“We are sickened. The court is telling us, ‘go on, there’s not a problem here, there’s nothing to see,’” said Danièle Lamy, who lost her son Eric in the crash and heads an association for families of victims.
“For the powerful, impunity reigns. Centuries pass, and nothing changes,” she said. “The families of victims are mortified and in total disarray.”
While the court didn’t find the companies guilty of criminal wrongdoing, the judges said that Airbus and Air France held civil responsibility for the damages caused by the crash, and ordered them to compensate families of victims. It didn’t provide an overall amount, but scheduled hearings in September to work that out.
Air France has already compensated some families of those killed, who came from 33 countries. People from around the world were among the plaintiffs.
Brazilian Nelson Faria Marinho lost his son, an engineer heading to Angola on an oil exploration job when Flight 447 crashed.
“France isn’t serious. It manufactured a killer plane and they’re covering everything else up,” said Marinho, who heads an association representing 56 Brazilian families of victims.
But he said the ruling wasn’t a surprise.
“With all the accidents, all the tragedies, the first thing they do is blame the pilot, which isn’t true. I accompanied this tragedy step by step,” he said. He described the plane as “excessively automatic. It is a killer plane and they didn’t correct it.”
Unusually, even state prosecutors argued for acquittal, saying that the two-month trial didn’t produce enough proof of criminal wrongdoing by the companies.
Prosecutors laid the blame primarily on the pilots, who died in the crash. Airbus lawyers also blamed pilot error, and Air France said the full reasons for the crash will never be known.
Air France said in a statement that the company took note of the ruling, and “will always remember the victims of this terrible accident, and express deep compassion to all of their loved ones.”
Airbus and Air France had faced potential fines of up to 225,000 euros ($219,000) each if convicted of manslaughter. That would have been just a fraction of their annual revenues, but a criminal conviction for the aviation heavyweights could have hurt their reputations and reverberated through the industry.
The A330-200 plane disappeared from radar in a storm over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, with 216 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. It took two years to find the plane and its black box recorders on the ocean floor, at depths of more than 13,000 feet (around 4,000 meters).
An Associated Press investigation at the time found that Airbus had known since at least 2002 about problems with the type of pitot tubes used on the jet that crashed, but failed to replace them until after the crash.
Air France was accused of not having implemented training in the event of icing of the pitot probes despite the risks. Airbus was accused of not doing enough to urgently inform airlines and their crews about faults with the pilots or to ensure training to mitigate the risk.
The crash led to changes in regulations for airspeed sensors and in how pilots are trained.
The trial was fraught with emotion from the start. Distraught families shouted down the CEOs of Airbus and Air France as the proceedings opened in October, crying out “Shame!” as the executives took the stand. Dozens of people who lost loved ones stormed out of the court as the trial wrapped up with the prosecutors’ surprising call for acquittal.
“Fourteen years of legal proceedings to get here. This is a lot for us to take,” Michel Mammayou, whose daughter was aboard Flight 447, said after Monday’s verdict.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition