Thirteen years have passed since the crash of the Rio-Paris, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And since all this time, the same questions have been ringing in the head of Danièle Lamy. “We need to know how it happened, why it happened, and why the accident was not avoided,” says the president of the association AF447 Entraide et solidarité, who lost her son. Eric, 37, in the air disaster that occurred in June 2009, the deadliest in the history of Air France. In the Airbus A330 of Air France, that day, were 12 crew members and 216 passengers of 33 different nationalities, including 61 French. After a long legal battle, the two companies were finally sent to the criminal court for manslaughter.
“We are waiting for this trial”, which begins on Monday, “to be the trial of Airbus and Air France” and not “that of the pilots”, insists Danièle Lamy. “They are victims in the same way as the others”, she continues, justice must “punish the real responsible”. Analysis of the aircraft’s black boxes, fished out a month later, confirmed that the pilots, disoriented by the icing of the Pitot velocity probes in the unstable Doldrums near the Equator, could not recover from the stall of the aircraft, which took place in less than five minutes. “They no longer had any information. It was night, there was a storm, and three respondents out of three were frosty”, underlines the president of the association which has 384 members from 13 countries.
Probe failures had multiplied in the months preceding the accident. After the disaster, the affected model was replaced worldwide. “Why did Airbus wait until there was a crash to change the probes on the planes? If this had been done earlier, as requested by Air France in 2008 and 2009, the accident would not have happened”, wants to believe Danièle Lamy. The European aircraft manufacturer disputes any criminal fault, as does the airline. After a long succession of expertise, the investigating judges had also pronounced a dismissal in August 2009. Outraged, the relatives of the victims and the unions of pilots had appealed. In May 2021, the investigating chamber ordered the referral of the two companies to court. They incur a fine of 225,000 euros.
In its judgment, the Court of Appeal in fact considered that there were sufficient charges against Air France for having “abstained from implementing appropriate training [et] the information of the crews which was essential” in the face of the icing of the probes, “which prevented the pilots from reacting as they should”. Airbus was dismissed for having “underestimated the seriousness of the failures of the airspeed sensors fitted to the A330 aircraft, by not taking all the necessary measures to urgently inform the crews of the operating companies and contribute to their effective training”.
For two months, many experts will follow one another at the helm of the 31st correctional chamber of the Paris court. Their testimony should help the judges to determine whether Airbus and Air France committed fault in a certain connection with the accident. “The civil parties know that the debates will be very technical, in order to allow the judge to decide on the question of criminal responsibility, it is absolutely inevitable”, underlines Me Olivier Morice, lawyer for several families of victims.
“Our role will be to give a human dimension to this trial. It must not be like the Concorde, where we only talked about technique, as if there were no victims. There, there are hundreds of victims and we must not forget that, ”adds Me Alain Jakubowicz, lawyer for Entraide et Solidarité. The latter hopes that the trial will “advance aviation safety”.
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