Air France and Airbus have been found not guilty of involuntary homicide in a criminal trial over the 2009 crash of a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that killed 228 passengers and crew.
The national carrier and plane manufacturing giant had been charged over their alleged role in the disaster after a previous investigation was dropped in 2019.
“Looking at the science at the time, no criminal liability seems to me to be applicable,” one of the magistrates said, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.
The acquittal was confirmed in an abstract of the court’s ruling provided by the Paris prosecutor’s office.
State prosecutors had taken the unusual step of admitting to the court that it was “impossible” to pin the blame on either company, BFMTV reported.
“That is the part of the decision that we cannot — we do not — know how to be satisfied by, because nothing in our world, in our age, can justify that 228 people took a flight leaving Rio for Paris and never landed,” David Koubbi, a lawyer representing some of the families of victims of the crash, told BFMTV.
However, the court did find certain Airbus or Air France practices to be reckless or negligent. One issue is that Airbus did not replace faulty devices called pitot tubes, sensors crucial to determining an aircraft’s speed and altitude. Problems with pitot tubes had affected Airbus aircraft in the past.
Air France, for its part, did not properly flag past reports of incidents with these tubes to pilots, according to the court.
Both companies are now liable for civil damages as a result. A subsequent hearing has been set for September 4.
Koubbi said these are not the claims for which his clients wanted compensation.
The 2009 crash
Mystery initially surrounded the crash of Air France flight 447, an A330, in part because it occurred while the plane was flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Most fatal aircraft accidents happen close to take-off or landing, not mid-flight.
France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) concluded in 2012 that problems were first caused by icing on the pitot tubes. Once these sensors failed, the autopilot disengaged and the cockpit crew lost reliable readouts of flight data. The plane then plunged.
Airbus retrofitted pitot tubes on aircrafts in 2019 following a directive from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.
Had they been convicted, the companies would have each faced a fine of €225,000 ($245,629).
In a statement, Airbus said it “reaffirms the full commitment of the company and all its employees to keep prioritizing a safety-first culture across the company and the aviation sector.”
An Air France spokesperson said the company “wishes to reaffirm its continued trust in all of its pilots and flight crews and reiterates that the safety of its customers and crews is its absolute priority.”