PARIS (AP) — Nicolas Touillou had just proposed to his girlfriend. Nelson Marinho Jr. he was leaving for a new oil exploration job. Eric Lamy was about to celebrate his 38th birthday.
He was among 228 people killed in 2009 when a storm-hit Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plunged into the Atlantic. After more than a decade of legal battles, their families finally have a chance at justice.
Airbus and airline industry heavyweight Air France are being charged with manslaughter in a trial starting Monday over the crash of Flight 447 on June 1, 2009. The worst air crash in Air France’s history killed people of 33 nationalities and had lasting impact, leading to changes in air safety regulationsthe way pilots are trained and the use of airspeed sensors.
But he almost didn’t come to trial. The companies insist they are not criminally liable and Air France has already compensated families. Investigators argued for the case to be dropped, but unusually the judges overruled them and sent the case to trial.
“We made a promise to our loved ones to have the truth about them and make sure they don’t die for nothing,” Ofeli Tuigiou, whose 27-year-old brother Nicolas was killed, told The Associated Press. “But we are also fighting for the collective security, in fact, for all those who board an Airbus or Air France every day, every day.”
He said the companies presented themselves as “intact” and that Airbus had made no effort to address the families’ concerns. “For them we are nothing. They didn’t lose 228 people. They lost a plane.”
Few families in Brazil, which lost 59 citizens in the crash, can afford to travel to France for the trial. Some believe the French justice system has been too soft on Airbus and Air France – two industrial giants in which the French government has an ownership stake.
The test is expected to focus on two main factors: icing of external sensors called pitot tubes and pilot error.
The Airbus A300-200 disappeared from radar over the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Senegal with 216 passengers and 12 crew members. The first debris was spotted at sea only five days later. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the plane – and its black boxes – were located on the ocean floor, in an unprecedented search effort at depths of more than 13,000 feet.
France’s air accident investigation agency BEA found that the accident involved a series of eventswithout a single cause.
As a storm hit the plane, ice crystals present at high altitudes disabled the pitot tubes, preventing airspeed and altitude information. Autopilot disconnected.
The crew continued manual navigation, but with incorrect navigation data. The plane went into an aerodynamic stall, nose up. And then he dived.
The pilots “did not understand what was happening to them. A difficulty of interpretation, in a purely digital aircraft like all aircraft in the world today — well, it’s easy to make a mistake,” said Gerard Feldzer, a former Air France pilot and pilot instructor.
He said he and pilots around the world asked themselves afterwards “if it were me, would I have acted the same way? It was a very difficult question to answer.”
No one is at risk of jail time in this case. only companies are tested. Each faces potential fines of up to €225,000 – a fraction of their annual revenue – but could suffer reputational damage if found criminally liable.
Nelson Marinho, whose son Nelson Jr was killed, is angry that no company executives will face trial.
“They have changed various managers, both at Airbus and Air France, so who will they arrest? No one. There will be no justice. That’s unfortunately the truth,” Marinho, a retired engineer who leads a support group for the victims’ families, told the AP.
Air France is accused of not carrying out pitot probe icing training despite the dangers.
In a statement, the company said it would prove to the court “that it has not committed any criminal wrongdoing at the source of the accident” and seek an acquittal.
Air France has since changed its training manuals and simulations. It also provided compensation to families, who had to agree not to disclose the amounts.
Airbus is accused of knowing that the model of the pitot tubes on Flight 447 was faulty and of not doing enough to promptly inform airlines and their crews about it and provide training to mitigate the resulting risk.
An AP investigation at the time found that Airbus had known since at least 2002 about pitot problems, but failed to replace them until after the crash. The model in question – a Thales AA pitot – was subsequently banned and replaced.
Airbus blames pilot error and told investigators that ice is an inherent problem with all of these sensors.
“They knew and did nothing,” said Danièle Lamy, president of an association of victims’ families that pushed for a trial. “The pilots should never have been in such a situation, they never understood the cause of the failure and the plane had become unpilotable.”
Lamy lost her son Eric just days before his 38th birthday. Since then he has been fighting to find out the truth.
“The plane had sent messages to the ground about the problem but had not warned the pilots. It’s like if you were driving a car at 130 (km/h, about 80 mph), your brakes no longer worked, but the car sent the alert to the mechanic, not the driver,” Lamy told the AP.
He is among 489 civil parties in the trial, which is scheduled to last until December.
The crash forced Airbus and Air France to be more transparent and responsive, Feldzer said, noting that the trial will be important for the airline industry as well as for families.
“The history of aviation safety is made of that, of accidents,” Feldzer said.
Vaux-Montagny reported from Lyon, France. David Biller in Rio de Janeiro and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.