PARIS — A French court on Monday acquitted Airbus and Air France of manslaughter charges over the 2009 crash of Flight 447 from Rio to Paris, which killed 228 people and led to lasting changes in aircraft safety measures.
Sobs broke out in the courtroom as the presiding judge read out the decision, a devastating defeat for victims’ families 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 families of those killed, who came from 33 countries. Families from around the world are among the plaintiffs, including many in Brazil.
The two-month trial left families wracked with anger and disappointment. Unusually, even state prosecutors argued for acquittal, saying that the proceedings 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 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 pitots or to ensure training to mitigate the risk.
The crash had lasting impacts on the industry, leading to changes in regulations for airspeed sensors and in how pilots are trained.
The trial was fraught with emotion. 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.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.