Court Acquits Air France & Airbus of Manslaughter Charges in AF447 Crash
Air France and Airbus were recently acquitted of charges connected to the tragic Air France Flight AF447 crash in 2009. Although the prosecution found some acts of imprudence by both the manufacturer and the airline, they did not find enough evidence to prove criminal negligence on their part.
Background of the Trial
The case revolved around an Airbus A330-200 (registered as F-GZCP) that crashed during a flight from Rio de Janeiro Galeão to Paris Charles de Gaulle in 2009. All 228 people on board, including three flight crew, nine cabin crew, and 216 passengers, lost their lives in Air France’s most fatal accident.
The prosecution concluded that the pilots had been unable to manage their stress and surprise after receiving faulty readings from the aircraft’s pitot sensors, which triggered multiple alarms. The court could not prove that the sensors had malfunctioned, and therefore argued that there was no liability for either company involved.
Following a civil trial held between October and December of the previous year, the public prosecutors’ office stated that it was impossible to establish blame for either company and recommended that both defendants be cleared. This decision not to seek a conviction was unusual but not binding for the judges overseeing the trial.
The court found that Airbus had committed “four acts of imprudence or negligence,” including not replacing specific models of pitot tubes on the A330 and A340 fleet known to freeze more frequently. The manufacturer was also accused of “withholding information” from flight operators.
Air France, on the other hand, was found to have committed two “acts of imprudence” concerning the distribution of information about the faulty pitot sensors. Despite these findings, the court could not establish a strong causal link between these shortcomings and the accident, and therefore no offense was deemed to have been committed.
The final accident report, released by France’s Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety in July 2021, primarily attributed the crash to pilot error following technical malfunctions of the pitot tubes. These tubes, located on the plane’s exterior to measure airspeed, iced over during the flight, causing incorrect speed readings that distracted the crew. The crew’s failure to respond appropriately to the warning alarms contributed to the accident.
The Public Prosecutors Office initially called for a manslaughter trial against Air France, arguing that the airline did not provide sufficient information to its pilots about the procedures to be followed. The case underscored that the pitot tubes had malfunctioned due to ice on previous flights before the crash and accused Airbus of not informing airlines urgently enough. These sensors were replaced on all Airbus aircraft worldwide after the accident.
The case was dismissed in 2019 due to insufficient evidence, but an association representing the victims’ relatives (‘Association entraide et solidarité vol AF447’) appealed the decision. In May 2021, the Court of Appeal of Paris reversed the 2019 dismissal and ordered Air France and Airbus to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter, culminating in the recent trial.
In a statement to Simple Flying, an Airbus spokesperson expressed sympathy for those affected by the tragedy and reaffirmed the company’s commitment to prioritizing safety. The spokesperson noted that the decision was consistent with the 2019 dismissal and reiterated Airbus’s dedication to maintaining a safety-first culture throughout the company and the aviation industry.
At the time of the accident, the aircraft was about four years old and had accumulated nearly 18,900 flying hours.
After the Trial
The verdict marks the end of a long legal battle for the families of the victims, Air France, and Airbus. While some family members expressed disappointment and disbelief at the outcome, others found closure and relief that the trial has concluded.
Air France’s Response
Air France, while acknowledging the court’s decision, maintained that the safety of its passengers and crew remains its top priority. The airline has since implemented additional safety measures and enhanced training programs for its pilots, aiming to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The AF447 trial has drawn attention to the importance of effective communication between manufacturers, airlines, and regulators. Lessons learned from this tragedy have resulted in increased focus on flight crew training, particularly in handling high-stress situations and unexpected system failures. The aviation industry as a whole has also benefited from updated safety guidelines and improvements in aircraft design, ultimately making air travel safer for passengers worldwide.
The AF447 trial serves as a sobering reminder of the potential consequences of system failures and human error in aviation. Although Air France and Airbus were acquitted of manslaughter charges, the industry must continue to prioritize safety and learn from past mistakes to prevent future tragedies.
As we reflect on the AF447 tragedy and its impact on the aviation industry, we’d like to hear your thoughts. How do you think this incident has shaped airline safety and pilot training over the years? Share your opinions in the comments section below.