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Air France and Airbus face angry families in AF447 crash test

Air France and Airbus face angry families in AF447 crash test
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PARIS, Oct 10 (Reuters) – A French criminal court has opened the historic manslaughter trial of Air France (AIRF.PA) and aircraft manufacturer Airbus (AIR.PA) on Monday with angry relatives demanding justice more than 13 years after an A330 jet plowed into the Atlantic, killing everyone on board.

Leaders of both companies pleaded not guilty to “negligent manslaughter” after officials read the names of 228 people who died when flight AF447, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, crashed on March 1.

Several relatives called out protests including “shame” and “too little, too late” as Air France chief executive Anne Rigail and then Airbus SE CEO Guillaume Faury offered their condolences during the opening speech of the nine-week trial.

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“We have waited thirteen years for this day and have prepared for it for a long time,” Daniele Lamy, who lost her son in the accident, told Reuters before the hearing.

After a two-year search for the A330’s flight recorders using remote submarines, investigators determined that the pilots had clumsily reacted to a problem with iced-up speed sensors and free-falled without responding to “stall” warnings.

But French accident agency BEA also revealed earlier talks between Air France and Airbus about growing problems with external “pitot probes” that generate the speed readings.

Summarizing prosecutors’ findings, a Paris judge said Airbus had been suspected of being too slow to respond to the rising number of speeding incidents by launching an updated investigation.

Preliminary findings had meanwhile called into question the airline’s efforts to provide good training for pilots.

The relative roles of pilot or sensor error will be key studywhich uncovers bitter divisions that have been raging behind the scenes between two of France’s iconic companies for over a decade.

Airbus blames pilot error for the crash, while the French carrier claims confusing alarms and data overwhelmed the pilots.

Lawyers warned against allowing the long-awaited trial – which will continue after the overturning of a decision to drop the case – to marginalize relatives of the 33 nationalities represented on AF447, mostly French, Brazilian and German.

“It’s a process where the victims must remain at the center of the debate. We don’t want Airbus or Air France to turn this process into a conference of engineers,” said lawyer Sebastien Busy.

It is the first time that French companies are on trial for “involuntary manslaughter” after a plane crash. Victims’ families say individual managers should also be in the dock.

Relatives also crossed off the maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($220,612) any company could receive – equivalent to just two minutes of pre-COVID-19 revenue for Airbus or five minutes of passenger revenue for the airline. Larger sums were also made in undisclosed amounts in compensation or out-of-court settlements.

“It’s not the €225,000 that will worry them. It’s their reputation… that’s what (Air France and Airbus) is at stake for,” said family lawyer Alain Jakubowicz.

“We’re about something else, the truth… and learning lessons from all these great catastrophes. This process is about restoring a human dimension,” he told reporters.

TRAINING AND SYSTEMS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

AF447 sparked a rethink in terms of training and technology and is credited as one of only a few accidents that transformed aviation, including industry-wide improvements in recovering lost control.

The focus is on the mystery of why the crew of three, with more than 20,000 hours of flying experience, failed to understand that their modern jet had lost lift or had “stalled”.

That required the basic maneuver of pushing the nose down rather than pulling it up like they did in a radar dead zone for much of the fatal four-minute plunge toward the Atlantic.

The French BEA said the crew reacted incorrectly to the icing problem, but also lacked the necessary training to fly manually at high altitude after the autopilot failed.

It also highlighted inconsistent signals from a display called the Flight Director, which has since been redesigned to turn itself off during such events to avoid confusion.

“It will be a difficult process and we are here to show compassion… but also our contribution to truth and understanding,” Airbus CEO Faury told reporters after the opening hearing.

Rigail expressed “deepest condolences” after telling the court Air France would never forget their worst accident ever.

Mourning the loss of his daughter on AF447, retired German CEO Bernd Gans likened the crash – with its focus on man and machine – to a recent safety crisis surrounding Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX.

“They changed the world and the public’s view of these big companies and (regulatory) agencies that have great power but should use it,” he said.

“They cannot restore trust with such explanations.”

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Reporting by Tim Hepher; Edited by Kirsten Donovan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Policy.

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