Continental Airlines cleared of crime in Concorde disaster

Appeal court overturns involuntary homicide conviction over supersonic jet disaster in 2000

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 3:22am


A French court on yesterday cleared Continental Airlines of any crime over the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde but upheld a ruling that the US airline bore civil responsibility for the disaster.

The US airline had been convicted of involuntary homicide in 2010 on the basis of expert testimony that the crash of the supersonic jet was caused by a piece of metal that fell from one of its planes onto the runway at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport.

The conviction and an associated €200,000 (HK$2 million) fine were overturned on appeal yesterday, as was the conviction for criminal negligence of John Taylor, the Continental engineer whose maintenance work had been blamed for the strip of metal falling off a DC10 airliner.

But the court upheld the first trial's conclusion that Continental should bear civil responsibility and pay Air France €1 million for the damage done to it reputation by the disaster which left 113 people dead and led to Concorde being taken out of service.

Experts had testified in the first trial that the piece of metal burst the Concorde's tyre, causing it to damage the fuel tank and, in turn, triggering a leak which caused the explosion which resulted in the plane plunging into a hotel shortly after take-off.

Appeal court judge Michele Luga accepted that explanation of the tragedy but ruled that it did not warrant Continental facing criminal charges.

Taylor was given a 15-month suspended sentence in 2010 having been found to have used an inappropriate metal, titanium, to repair the metal strip.

"This was a tragic accident and we support the court's decision that Continental did not bear fault," Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Continental Holdings, said. "We have long maintained that neither Continental nor its employees were responsible for this tragic event and are satisfied that this verdict was overturned."

The decision to uphold the finding of Continental's civil responsibility clears the way for Air France to pursue its suit for €15 million of damages in a civil case that has been suspended pending yesterday's verdict.

The appeal court also rejected prosecution requests for Claude Frantzen, 75, the former head of France's civil aviation authority, and Taylor's supervisor, to be convicted of negligence.

Lawyers for Continental had accused Frantzen of turning a blind eye to lapses in safety procedures related to Concorde over a period of 15 years.

The US company has always argued Air France was primarily responsible for the crash and that the plane would never have taken off that day if all necessary safety precautions had been taken.

The victims were 100 passengers, most of them German, nine crew members and four people on the ground in a Paris suburb.

Concorde, the sleek supersonic symbol of luxury air travel which had been operated jointly by Air France and British Airways since 1976, was taken out of service in 2003.

The two companies blamed falling passenger numbers in the aftermath of the crash and rising operating costs for a plane that was considered a triumph of engineering that was never translated to commercial success.

Additional reporting by Associated Press