PONTOISE, France (Reuters) - Continental Airlines and five men went on trial on Tuesday for their alleged role in the crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people in 2000 and hastened the end of luxury supersonic travel.
The Concorde, carrying mostly German tourists, caught fire as it roared out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport on 25 July 2000 and crashed just minutes later into a nearby hotel.
Investigators believe a Continental DC10 triggered the disaster when a small metal strip fell from it onto the runway. This punctured the Concorde’s tyres during takeoff, spraying debris into the underwing fuel tanks and sparking the fire.
U.S. carrier Continental has always denied responsibility and has questioned the safety record of the ageing, drop-nosed Concorde.
The trial, held at a modern court house in the small town of Pontoise, some 30 km (18.5 miles) north of Paris, could have wide-ranging implications for the way the airline industry maintains its planes and the stringency of security measures.
Continental and the five individuals, including three elderly French aviation experts, are charged with involuntary manslaughter. If found guilty, Continental faces a 375,000 euro (326,700 pound) fine and possibly substantial damages, while the men risk 5 years imprisonment and a 75,000 euro fine.
The judge started proceedings by reading out the names of the 109 Concorde passengers and crew and four hotel employees on the ground who died in the inferno.
The trial is expected to run until May 28.
Roland Rappaport, a lawyer representing the family of the pilot of the doomed Concorde said investigations had established a clear link between the bursting of the Concorde’s tyre and the piece of metal which had fallen on the runway.
“The essential question in this trial is to find out why, when a tyre bursts, an airplane crashes,” Rappaport said.
“If the explosion of a tyre on a runway is enough to give rise to a tragedy of this kind, then travel by air must be stopped,” he told reporters.
Continental’s lawyer Olivier Metzner has said what is at stake at the trial is what he described as Continental’s excellent reputation which the airline did not want destroyed.
The accused men are John Taylor, a welder who had fixed the metal strip onto the Continental plane, and his supervisor, Stanley Ford. Neither was in court on Tuesday and it was not clear if they planned to attend the trial at any stage.
The three French defendants were Henri Perrier, the head of testing of the Concorde programme before becoming its director, and Jacques Herubel, the plane’s former chief engineer, who have been faulted for failing to spot and then rectify design flaws.
Claude Frantzen, the former head of France’s civil aviation body, is accused of failing to order changes to the Concorde when problems over its tyres first emerged, well before 2000.
Air France, which paid millions of dollars in compensation to families of the victims, has escaped blame for the disaster.
The fleet of Concordes operated by Air France and British Airways were grounded after the crash and the jets’ fuel tanks were strengthened. The planes returned to service in 2001 but were finally withdrawn from the skies in 2003.
Metzner, said he would present witnesses disputing the version of events presented by investigators, adding that there were doubts about the maintenance and safety record of the Concorde.
“I question the independence of the investigators, I question those who did not want the truth, I question Air France and it is evident that on July 25, 2000, the Concorde should never have been allowed to take off,” Metzner told reporters.
Editing by Crispian Balmer and Charles Dick