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Air France faces angry families over Airbus AF447 crash test

Air France faces angry families over Airbus AF447 crash test
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PARIS, Oct 10 (Reuters) – A French criminal court has opened the historic Air France murder trial. (AIRF.PA) and aircraft manufacturer Airbus (AIR.PA) All on board were killed on Monday, 13 years after the A330 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean as angry relatives demanded justice.

After officials read the names of the 228 people who died on June 1, 2009, when AF447 blacked out en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris during an equatorial storm, the heads of both companies pleaded not guilty to “involuntary manslaughter.”

First Air France Chief Executive Anne Rigail and then Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury offered their condolences during opening statements, the latter’s words punctuated by cries of “shame” and “too little, too late”.

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“We’ve been waiting for this day for thirteen years and we’ve been preparing for a long time,” Daniele Lami, who lost his son in the crash, told Reuters before the hearing.

After a two-year search for the A330’s black boxes using remote submarines, investigators have found that the pilots reacted clumsily to a problem with frozen speed sensors and crashed without responding to a “stop” warning.

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

Concluding the prosecutor’s findings, the Paris judge said that Airbus was suspected of reacting too slowly to the increasing speed incidents with the application of the updated investigation.

Meanwhile, initial findings have called into question the airline’s efforts to ensure pilots are well trained.

The relative role of the pilot and the sensor will be key testexposes the bitter behind-the-scenes differences between France’s two flagship firms for more than a decade.

Airbus blames pilot error for the crash, while the French carrier claims that mixed alarms and information overwhelmed the pilots.

Lawyers have warned against allowing the long-awaited trial – after the dismissal order was overturned – to sideline relatives of the 33 nationalities represented in AF447, mainly French, Brazilian and German.

“This is a trial where the victims must remain at the center of the discussion. We do not want Airbus or Air France to turn this trial into a conference of engineers,” said lawyer Sébastien Busy.

It is the first time French companies have been prosecuted for “involuntary manslaughter” after an air crash. The victims’ families say the individual managers should also be in the dock.

Relatives also scrapped the maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($220,612) each company can receive – the equivalent of just two minutes of pre-COVID-19 revenue for Airbus, or five minutes of passenger revenue for an airline. Larger undisclosed sums were also made in restitution or out-of-court settlements.

“They are not worried about the 225,000 euros. It is their reputation… (Air France and Airbus) that is at stake,” said the families’ lawyer, Alain Jakubowicz.

“For us, it’s about something else, the truth… and making sure that human lessons are learned from all these great disasters. This challenge is to restore a dimension,” he said.

The nine-week trial at the Paris Criminal Court will continue until December 8.

TRAINING AND SYSTEMS IN FOCUS

AF447 led to a rethinking of training and technology, and is regarded as one of several accidents that changed aviation, including industry-wide improvements in lost control recovery.

Center-stage is the mystery of why the crew of three, with more than 20,000 hours of flight experience between them, could not understand that their modern aircraft was losing lift or “stalling”.

This required a major maneuver to push the nose down instead of up, as was the case for most of the fatal four minutes of the dead-zone radar dive into the Atlantic.

France’s BEA said the crew responded incorrectly to the icing problem, but also lacked the training needed to fly manually at high altitudes after the autopilot was airborne.

It also highlighted inconsistent signals from a display called the flight director, which was redesigned to turn itself off in such events to avoid confusion.

“It will be a difficult test and we are here to show compassion… but also to contribute to truth and understanding,” Airbus CEO Faury told reporters.

Rigail expressed his “deepest sympathy” after telling the court he would never forget Air France’s worst crash.

Retired German executive Bernd Gans, grieving the loss of his daughter in AF447, described the accident — focusing on machines versus humans — as Boeing Co. He likened it to the recent security crisis involving the 737 MAX aircraft.

“They’ve changed the world and the public’s perception of these big companies and (regulatory) agencies that have a lot of power but have to use it,” he said.

They cannot restore trust with such statements.”

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Reporting by Tim Hepher; Edited by Kirsten Donovan

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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