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.
The court did find Airbus and Air France both liable for civil damages for certain failings, though they lacked a “tie of certain causality” with the accident. A subsequent hearing has been set for September 4.
Yet victims were not seeking compensation for these claims, Koubbi said.
Mystery initially surrounded the crash of Air France flight 447, 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 devices called pitot tubes, sensors crucial to determining an aircraft’s speed and altitude. Once the sensors failed, the autopilot disengaged and the cockpit crew lost reliable readouts of flight data. The plane then plunged following a maneuver by one of the junior pilots on board.
Problems with pitot tubes had affected Airbus aircraft in the past, but the company had not corrected the problem. The tubes were retrofitted 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.”
— Joseph Ataman, Chris Liakos and Jim Bitterman contributed reporting.