Continental Convicted of Manslaughter in Concorde Crash Trial

Air France Concorde crash
Rescue workers and firemen search the site where Air France Concorde crashed July 25, 2000. Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Continental Airlines Inc. was convicted of manslaughter over the deaths of 113 people in the Concorde crash outside Paris 10 years ago and ordered to pay 1.2 million euros ($1.6 million) in damages and fines.

There is an “incontestable link” between the “negligence” of Continental and the fireball that brought down the supersonic jet on July 25, 2000, which ignited when its tire ran over a piece of metal from one of the U.S. carrier’s planes on takeoff, Judge Dominique Andreassier said today in Pontoise, France.

The ruling, which included a suspended jail sentence for a Continental maintenance engineer, “will send a shock wave across the industry” and could lead to pilots and mechanics “clamming up for fear of criminal prosecution,” said Kenneth Quinn, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

The crash hastened the demise of Concorde, with flights grounded for 16 months after the disaster and the plane returning to service just as demand for air travel fell following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bookings never fully recovered on the 1,350 mile-per-hour (2,172 kmph) plane, used by celebrities including Britain’s Princess Diana and former Beatle Paul McCartney. Concorde’s last commercial takeoff was in 2003.

Continental must pay a 200,000 euro fine and 1 million euros to Air France-KLM Group, operator of the doomed flight. Air France had sought as much as 15 million euros.

Verdict ‘Absurd’

Continental, which has its main hub in Houston, said the verdict was “absurd” and that “to find that any crime was committed in this tragic accident is not supported either by the evidence at trial or by aviation authorities and experts.”

Olivier Metzner, a lawyer for carrier, which merged with United Airlines in October to form United Continental Holdings Inc., said it would appeal. “It is a political decision, a decision that suits all the French parties,” he said. “Once again, it is the French interests that are of concern.”

Continental mechanic John Taylor received a 15-month suspended sentence and a 2,000-euro fine after the court ruled he ignored the risk of using the wrong materials in maintenance. His manager, Stanley Ford, was cleared of wrongdoing.

“Prosecuting honest mistakes really has no place in aviation safety,” said Pillsbury’s Quinn in Washington, adding that the crash arose from “a chain of errors and omissions that contributed to a catastrophe,” with “no evidence uncovered that this was willful or intentional by anyone.”

German Charter

The Concorde crashed while operating a German charter flight carrying 100 passengers to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, most of them planning to join a cruise to Ecuador. The service, Air France AF4590, also had nine crew, and a further four people were killed in a hotel hit by the plane.

French crash investigator BEA issued its final report in 2002, saying the plane ran over a metal strip from a Continental DC-10 that took off earlier. The strip tore into the Concorde’s wheel, sending debris into fuel tanks, sparking a fire. The danger posed by exploding tires, noted after five incidents in 1979 and two in 1993, was also faulted in the report.

Continental lawyer Metzner disputed the findings during the four-month trial, saying the investigation ignored witnesses who said the plane was already on fire when it hit the debris. The court rejected his arguments today.

The court cleared Henri Perrier and Jacques Herubel, former employees of Concorde’s French manufacturer Aerospatiale, while saying they should have undertaken “a fuller examination” of the consequences of a fuel leakage resulting from the perforation of the lower surface of the plane’s fuel tank after a tire burst.

EADS Liable

European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., the owner of Aerospatiale’s successor, Airbus SAS, was held “civilly liable as the employer,” the court said, due to “a missed opportunity” to address the risk.

EADS, Continental and Taylor were ordered to pay 11 individuals and a victims’ group 195,000 euros. Continental and the mechanic alone were ordered to pay 613,000 euros to a French health insurance fund. Air France resolved claims from families of the dead soon after the accident.

Jacques Rocca, a spokesman for EADS, said the company reserved the possibility of an appeal.

“The civil decision is a surprising one,” he said. “There’s no link established between the accident and reasons for the court condemning EADS in a civil action.”

The fifth defendant, Claude Frantzen, a former official at France’s civil aviation authority, was also cleared.

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