Q&A: Concorde crash trials

Image caption The plane crashed in Gonesse shortly after taking off in 2000

A French appeals court has overturned a 2010 verdict against US airline Continental, absolving the firm of "criminal responsibility" for the Concorde air crash near Paris in July 2000 in which 113 people died. It also cleared a Continental mechanic who had been found guilty of manslaughter. However, the court upheld a ruling that the airline bore civil responsibility for the disaster and should pay operator Air France 1m euros ($1.3m) for the damage done to its reputation.

What happened?

Concorde flight 4590 crashed in the town of Gonesse shortly after taking off in flames from Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris on 25 July 2000.

The stricken Air France plane hit a hotel, killing all 109 people on board as well as four people on the ground.

Most of the passengers were German tourists heading to New York to join a luxury cruise to the Caribbean. Nine French crew members also died.

What caused the crash?

The official accident report into the crash said a piece of metal fell off a plane operated by US airline Continental, which had taken off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport just before the doomed Concorde.

The supersonic airliner hit the 43cm (17in) titanium strip and one of the plane's tyres burst, causing rubber to fly up and rupture a fuel tank, the report said.

Leaking kerosene then ignited, causing the fire.

The report was published in December 2004.

Who was on trial in 2010?

In 2008 a French public prosecutor asked judges to bring manslaughter charges against Houston-based Continental Airlines, which denied responsibility.

Continental was fined 200,000 euros (£170,000) and convicted of criminal responsibility for the crash. It was also told to pay 1m euros to the Concorde operator, Air France.

Five individuals also stood trial - two Continental US employees and three French ex-officials - and all denied the charges.

  • Guilty: John Taylor, the Continental mechanic who allegedly fitted the metal strip to the DC-10, was fined 2,000 euros (£1,700) and handed a 15-month suspended jail term.
  • Acquitted: Stanley Ford, a Continental maintenance official
  • Acquitted: Henri Perrier, a former head of the Concorde division at Aerospatiale, now part of the aerospace company EADS
  • Acquitted: Jacques Herubel, Concorde's former chief engineer
  • Acquitted: Claude Frantzen, a former member of France's civil aviation watchdog

What happened during the 2010 trial?

The trial began in February 2010 and lasted four months.

Lawyers for Continental said the Concorde was not airworthy, and that it caught fire before it struck the titanium strip, suggesting the airline was being used as a convenient scapegoat.

"We are going to fight it and establish that the Concorde caught fire eight seconds before this scrap of metal met with the Concorde - so about 700m before," Continental lawyer, Olivier Metzner said.

This was denied by Air France, which did not face charges but which paid 100m euros in compensation to victims' families after the crash.

The court ruled that Continental should pay Concorde operator Air France 1m euros in compensation, a ruling that Continental appealed against, describing it as unfair and absurd.

What happened during the 2012 appeal?

The appeals court in Versailles was told by judicial investigators that officials had known for years about design problems with the Concorde which left it vulnerable to shock. The court heard that the plane should not have been allowed to fly.

The court ruled that though officials had missed chances to improve the plane's design, they could "be accused of no serious misconduct".

It overturned the verdict against Continental, absolving it of criminal responsibility. The court did, however, uphold a ruling that the US airline bore civil responsibility for the disaster and should pay Air France 1m euros ($1.3m) for the damage done to its reputation by the disaster.

Why did the case take so long to come to trial?

The official report into the crash was published in December 2004, and French authorities began a criminal investigation into Continental in March 2005.

Over the following three years, investigators amassed 80,000 court documents before Bernard Farret, a deputy prosecutor in Pontoise, outside Paris, asked judges to bring manslaughter charges against the defendants in March 2008.

The 2010 verdict then took a further two years to be appealed against, with the Versailles court pronouncing its decision in late November 2012.

What happened to Concorde after the crash?

Some argue Concorde's reputation never fully recovered after the disaster - the only crash ever to involve one of the supersonic airliners.

Air France and British Airways retired their Concorde fleets in October 2003, ending three decades of supersonic travel, when the final commercial flight from New York landed at Heathrow.

After being revamped and then retired, some original sections of Concorde now sit in museums.

What have the trials achieved?

During the 2010 trial, some critics argued that holding a case a decade after the event served no useful purpose.

After the crash, most of the victims' families agreed to take no legal action in return for undisclosed levels of compensation from Air France, EADS, Continental and tyre-maker Goodyear.

As Concorde no longer operated, the case became more about the reputation of the two companies involved - Continental and Air France.

The US-based Flight Safety Foundation argued such cases were harmful as they discouraged industry officials from sharing important safety information which could be used in future court cases.

After the 2012 verdict, Continental lawyer Oliver Metzner said that the plane had crashed because it was an aircraft "that did not have the right to fly". He said the appeal had revealed the failures of the French aviation system and its administration.

However, the head of the victims' association, Stephane Giquel, said the verdict had merely left families with more questions than answers, and a sense of helplessness and powerlessness.

Where can I find more about this on the web?

You can check the BBC News story for the latest developments in the trial, or read a transcript of the Concorde crew's last words.

You can also read the official report into the crash.

For further interest in Concorde, have a look at this picture gallery of the supersonic airliner's history.

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