Continental found guilty over Concorde crash

PONTOISE, France — Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics were convicted of manslaughter Monday by a French court, which ruled that debris from a Continental plane caused the crash of an Air France Concorde jet that killed 113 people a decade ago.

In this July 25

In this July 25

PONTOISE, France — Continental Airlines and one of its mechanics were convicted of manslaughter Monday by a French court, which ruled that debris from a Continental plane caused the crash of an Air France Concorde jet that killed 113 people a decade ago.

The panel of judges fined Continental C202,000 ($268,000) and John Taylor, its mechanic living in the United States, C2,000 ($2,650). Taylor also was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence. Both said they will appeal.

Continental Airlines Inc.’s lawyer, Olivier Metzner, criticized the Pontoise court outside Paris for what he called a “patriotic” decision — blaming an American company while acquitting French officials accused of ignoring design flaws in the elegant Concorde, a jet that could fly at twice the speed of sound and was the pride of European aviation.

All other defendants in the case — including three former French officials and Taylor’s now-retired supervisor Stanley Ford — were acquitted.

The judges also ordered nearly C2 million ($2.7 million) to be paid in damages to Air France, families of some victims and other civil parties in the case. Air France, which wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, will receive C1.08 million ($1.43 million) of those damages for the negative effect the case has had on its reputation.

Continental was ordered to pay the bulk of the damages, with a fraction of the burden falling to Airbus parent company EADS.

The presiding judge confirmed investigators’ long-held belief that titanium debris dropped by a Continental DC-10 onto the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport before the supersonic jet took off on July 25, 2000, was to blame. Investigators said the debris gashed the Concorde’s tire, propelling bits of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.

The plane then slammed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 people aboard and four others on the ground. Most of the victims were Germans heading to a cruise in the Caribbean.

The crash marked the beginning of the end for the Concorde, which was a commercial dud despite its glamour, and which was retired in 2003 by its only two carriers, Air France and British Airways.

Ronald Schmid, a lawyer who has represented several families of the German victims, said he was “skeptical” about the ruling.

“It bothers me that none of those responsible for Air France were sitting in the docks,” he told The Associated Press by phone from Frankfurt.

While France’s aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been foreseen, judicial investigators said the Concorde’s fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.

The court ruled, however, that though French officials had missed opportunities to improve the Concorde over the years, they could “be accused of no serious misconduct.”

The court said Taylor — a Danish citizen with permanent U.S. residence — should not have used titanium, a harder metal than usual, to build a piece for the DC-10 that is known as a wear strip. He was accused of improperly installing the wear strip, which fell onto the runway.

In a telephone interview from his home in Montgomery, Texas, on Monday, Taylor said, “I don’t think I did the work” installing the wear strip.

He also said the case has “destroyed my life.”

“I’ve been nothing but wronged since this started,” said Taylor, who marked 20 years of employment with Continental in August. He said the case has prevented him from gaining citizenship in the United States, where he has lived since age 3.

Continental defence lawyer Metzner, who argued that a fire broke out on the Concorde even before it reached the runway debris, said the ruling “protects only the interests of France.

“This has strayed far from truth, law and justice,” he said. “This has privileged purely national interests.”

Continental spokesman Nick Britton also said in a statement that the airline disagrees with the “absurd finding” against it and Taylor.

“Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident — and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties — shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France,” he said, noting that Air France was state-run at the time.

Continental faces no other court or other government action over the Concorde crash.

Roland Rappaport, a lawyer for the family of Concorde pilot Christian Marty and a pilots union, said the verdict was “incomprehensible” and asked why blame was heaped on Continental mechanics when French officials were aware of weaknesses on the Concorde around two decades before the crash.

“This trial made clear that the Concorde, this superb plane, suffered from severe technical insufficiencies, problems with the fuel tanks that were known since ’79,” he said.

The fine ordered for Continental surpassed the C175,000 ($231,000) fine sought by a state prosecutor, who had requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for both Taylor and Ford.

The prosecution also had requested a two-year suspended sentence for Henri Perrier, former head of the Concorde program at former plane maker Aerospatiale. It argued for the acquittal of Aerospatiale engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France’s civil aviation authority.

Though both Aerospatiale employees were cleared of manslaughter charges, the court ruled that European defence giant and Airbus parent company EADS, which absorbed Aerospatiale, did bear some civil responsibility, which is why the French branch of the company was ordered to pay a share of damages.

Parties including Air France and Continental compensated the families of most victims years ago, so financial claims were not the trial’s focus — the main goal was to assign responsibility.

Continental is now part of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., which was formed in October as the holding company owner of United and Continental airlines, which will eventually be combined into a single airline.

In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility. It is common for cases to drag on for years.

Last year, France’s highest court finally confirmed the acquittal of all those originally accused of responsibility in an Air Inter crash that killed 87 people in 1992 — or 17 years earlier.

———

Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Diana Heidgerd in Dallas, Texas, contributed to this report.

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