PARIS (Reuters) - Ten years after a Concorde crash killed 113 people, Continental Airlines faces a trial on Tuesday to determine its responsibility in a disaster which ended an era of luxury supersonic travel for the super rich.
Previous investigations have concluded that one of the Concorde’s tires was punctured by a small piece of metal that had fallen off a departing Continental Airlines flight, hurling debris into the airplane’s fuel tanks and causing a raging fire.
Continental has denied responsibility for the crash and last week its lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said he had 28 witnesses disputing that version of events.
The results of the trial could have wide-ranging implications on the way the airline industry maintains its planes and the stringency of security measures.
“(The trial) will revolve around the question of who knew what and who — despite knowing something — did not act and whether that person could therefore be prosecuted,” aviation security expert Ronald Schmid told Reuters Television.
On trial for involuntary manslaughter are Continental Airlines; John Taylor, a welder who worked for Continental at the time of the crash and his supervisor, Stanley Ford.
Henri Perrier, the head of testing of the Concorde programme before becoming its director and Jacques Herubel, the plane’s former chief engineer, are also accused. The sixth defendant is the former head of France’s civil aviation body Claude Frantzen.
All five are accused as individuals.
Metzner said Continental was determined to show that it was not to blame for the crash and he said there were many questions over the safety and maintenance level of the Concorde.
“The stake is above all a moral one. Continental Airlines is a company that has an excellent reputation and doesn’t want its image destroyed, which is respected by passengers and would not stand being held responsible,” he said.
The Air France Concorde was attempting to take off from Paris on 25 July 2000, carrying mostly German tourists bound for a deluxe Caribbean holiday cruise, when an engine caught fire.
Unable to gain altitude and trailing a fiery plume as long as its fuselage, the plane crashed into a hotel in the town of Gonesse, six kilometres (four miles) southwest of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.
Black box recordings showed that the plane’s captain tried desperately to turn the plane to land but did not have time. All 109 passengers, including three children, perished along with four hotel employees on the ground.
“The survivors expect ... a fair trial and an investigation into this accident. They want to learn why their relatives had to die and who is perhaps responsible for that,” said Schmid.
Prosecutors say the metal strip was fitted incorrectly on the Continental plane and was made of titanium, which is tougher than regulation aluminium and more likely to cause punctures.
Continental’s lawyer Metzner said his witnesses, who include pilots and members of the fire brigade, will attest that the strip of metal was not to blame for the fire on Concorde.
The crash hastened the demise of the highly uneconomical Concorde and its two operators, Air France and British Airways, took the plane out of service in 2003.
“We must and should learn out of this accident first of all that safety has absolute priority and is more important than money-making and prestige concerning an aircraft,” said Schmid. (Writing by Sophie Taylor; Editing by Louise Ireland)