French criminal investigations into airplane disasters such as the deadly July 2000 Concorde crash puts the flying public at risk by intimidating people with key information, lawyers and safety experts say.
Even if Continental Airlines Inc. and five individuals are cleared by judges in Pontoise, France, on Dec. 6 of manslaughter charges related to the crash that killed 113 people, witnesses may be reluctant to participate in the future for fear of being targeted by prosecutors.
“It has a chilling effect,” said James Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “I don’t think it does aviation safety any good.”
France is one of the few countries where fatal accidents automatically prompt criminal probes to run parallel with investigations by civil authorities. The two-track approach bogged down the Concorde investigation, with the criminal trial starting almost 10 years after the crash and seven years after the supersonic jetliner’s last commercial flight.
“Some people question the need for this double investigation,” said Pierre Sparaco, author of aviation books including a history of the Concorde. “Technical investigators on one side and criminal on the other often get in each other’s way. It’s not uncommon that they don’t listen to each other.”
Concorde flights were grounded for 16 months following the July 25, 2000, crash of Air France Flight AF4590. While the plane returned to service, air travel demand declined following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and traffic never recovered. The supersonic jet went out of service in 2003.
Civil investigators found the Concorde hit a piece of metal from a Continental plane that had taken off earlier. The strip tore into Concorde’s wheel, sending debris into fuel tanks, sparking a fire that crashed the plane. The danger posed by exploding tires, noted after five incidents in 1979 and two in 1993, was also cited in a report.
Continental declined to comment on the French investigative process or the trial, said Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for the airline. Continental has merged with United Airlines to form United Continental Holdings Inc., the world’s largest carrier.
The criminal investigators concurred, and in 2008 an investigating judge ordered the men and airline to trial. Continental, a mechanic and his manager erred in replacing an older wear strip with one of titanium, not made by the original manufacturer, according to the findings. Two men who worked on the Concorde program and a former French civil aviation official are accused of failing to address the tire risk.
Omitted Witness Reports
All deny the charges. The company’s lawyer Olivier Metzner declined to comment before the verdict. At a trial that started in February, Metzner argued the investigators omitted witness reports that indicated the plane may have caught fire before hitting the metal strip.
By prosecuting everyone from a Texas mechanic to the Concorde program director, France risks scaring witnesses, said John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former NTSB member.
“Everyone clams up,” Goglia said. “It makes an additional burden on the investigators to try to ferret out the facts. If you think even remotely that you’re going to be charged criminally with something, why would you say anything?”
There would be no trial in the U.S., people involved in the Concorde trial and observers in both countries say.
“Even if the debris caused the crash, those were the actions of well-intentioned people,” said John Cox, a former pilot now with Safety Operating Systems LLC in Washington.
“Surely there would not have been a criminal trial in the U.S.,” he said, since the unanimous jury verdict requirement for convictions would deter prosecutors from bringing the case.
Civil investigators and victims’ groups defended the French system, saying there is enough separation between the probes to allow witnesses to come forward.
France’s aviation investigation authority, the BEA, “is not there to find blame, we are there to determine how the accident occurred,” said BEA spokeswoman Martine Delbono. “The criminal investigation does not interfere in our activities.”
Victims’ rights advocates in France say differences in the legal systems mean criminal investigations are the only way to guarantee fair representation and access to information on what happened to their relatives.
“Our system is different; lawyers don’t have the means to conduct their own investigations to determine” whether families should pursue individuals, manufacturers or the airlines, said Roland Rappaport, a Paris lawyer representing the Concorde pilot’s family as well as the national pilots union in other accidents including last year’s Air France crash off the coast of Brazil.
“I’m not naive, I’m not saying we have access to everything, but in a country organized like ours, victims have very important rights” under the criminal probe, he said.
French judges have only sent one pilot to jail following a crash and the prosecutor called for suspended jail sentences against the Continental employees and the former director of the Concorde program, and dismissals for the two other men. He recommended a 175,000-euro fine for Continental.
Still the trial will undermine safety investigations as aviation workers and others see France prosecute the airline and its employees.
“When there is an accident, people will remember the prosecution of Continental,” said Michael Dworkin, executive vice president of the NTSB Bar Association. “I don’t know what this does that will in any way improve air safety.”
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