The families of the 228 people who died in the 2009 Rio-Paris plane crash were finally hoping for justice. Instead, as the long-awaited trial ended Thursday, they found themselves angry and frustrated with little indication that anyone would be held accountable.
The verdict is expected on April 17 next year.
Airbus and Air France, two major airlines in the aerospace industry, are facing manslaughter charges in an investigation into the crash of the Boeing 447 over the Atlantic.
But even prosecutors said the nine-week investigation had not yielded sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the companies, and they argued Wednesday that the two should be released. Instead, prosecutors primarily blamed the pilots who died in the crash.
Dozens of people who lost loved ones in the crash left the Paris courtroom while prosecutors spoke.
“It is not worth waiting 13 years for a perverted justice. (…) It is an indictment of the pilots, and I see this prosecutor taking a lot of liberties with the truth. I am ashamed,” said Daniel Lamy, president of the 447 Victims Association.
On June 1, 2009, the A330-200 disappeared from radar during a storm in the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Senegal with 216 passengers and 12 crew on board. It took two years to find the plane and its black box recorders on the sea floor, more than 13,000 feet (nearly 4,000 meters) deep.
While the defense had its final say on Thursday, lawyers for Airbus blamed the crash on pilot error, and Air France said the full cause of the crash would never be known.
The verdict will be announced later. If convicted, each company faces fines of up to 225,000 euros ($219,000) — a fraction of their annual turnover. Since only companies are investigated, no one risks imprisonment.
The trial was emotional from the start. The bereaved families have campaigned for more than a decade to demand an investigation, and the CEOs of Airbus and Air France have been called “disgraceful!” When the proceedings began in October. they cried. Officials also took a stand.
The official investigation found that several factors contributed to the accident, including pilot error and freezing of external sensors called pitot tubes.
An Associated Press investigation at the time found that Airbus had known about problems with the types of petot tubes used in the crashed plane since at least 2002, but only replaced them after the accident.
The accident had a lasting impact on the industry, leading to changes in airspeed sensor regulations and pilot training.
During the trial, the court heard testimony from flight experts and pilots — and recordings of the last conversation the Flight 447 crew had in the cockpit during the last four minutes of the flight. The pilots did not realize that the information from the sensors was wrong and tried to save the plane as best they could.
Despite the risks, Air France was accused of failing to conduct a training exercise if the Peto investigation froze. Then it modified the training and simulation manuals.
Airbus was accused of knowing that the Pitot tube model of Flight 447 was defective and of failing to do enough to immediately warn the airlines and their crews and provide training to reduce the risk.
Prosecutors said the trial failed to reach a “consensus” about what happened.
“We do not know what drove these experimental choices, and it is important to note the importance of human factors in the accident,” states the prosecution’s final report.
Airbus lawyer Simon Ntyai called on the judges to hand down a verdict of acquittal that “will be difficult on a human level but technically and legally fair”.
Another Airbus lawyer, Antoine Bouquier, admitted there was a “connection” to what happened to the ice-covered craters, “but that was not the direct cause of the accident.”
Lawyers for Air France say the world will never know what exactly went wrong.
“I regret to say this but, no, bereavement does not confer any right to justice. Mourning does not allow a private law to be enacted in court,” said Air France lawyer François Saint-Pierre. “Do we know what happened? No, we don’t.
Air France has already compensated the families of the victims. The victims come from 33 countries and the plaintiffs include families from all over the world.
“We expected an impartial investigation,” Lamy said. “The plaintiffs deliberately chose (…) to defend, pure and simple, Airbus and Air France multinational aircraft.”