Concorde crash trial wraps up

A standoff between Continental Airlines Inc. and Air France is in the spotlight as a French court wraps up a four-month trial into the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet 10 years ago
A French police officer looks at rescue workers near the debris of the hotel on which an Air France Concorde en route to New York crashed in Gonesse, outside Paris, shortly after takeoff on July 25, 2000. ((Laurent Rebours/Associated Press))

A standoff between Continental Airlines Inc. and Air France is in the spotlight as a French court wraps up a four-month trial Friday into the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet 10 years ago.

Houston-based Continental and two of its employees are accused of manslaughter for the June 2000 crash, which happened just after the plane took off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It killed 109 people aboard and four people on the ground, and devastated the reputation of the Concorde, which was capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.

A grainy file photo shows Air France Concorde flight 4590 taking off with fire trailing from its engine on the left wing from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on July 25, 2000. ((Toshihiko Sato/Associated Press))
The defence wraps up its arguments after months of a trial in a Paris suburb that has focused on investigators' reports that a Continental jet dropped a metal strip onto the runway before the Concorde took off.

They say the debris gashed one of the Concorde's tires, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire.

Continental denies any responsibility, saying fire broke out on the Concorde before the plane reached the debris on the runway.

Tensions mounted during the trial between Continental and Air France, which operated the crashed jet, with the airlines trading lawsuits outside the current trial.

A verdict is expected later this year. The trial's main goal is to assign responsibility, as most of the victims' families received settlements years ago.

Workers, officials accused

Prosecutor Bernard Farret asked the court to fine Continental more than $225,000 US and requested 18-month suspended prison sentences for two American employees of Continental, mechanic John Taylor and his supervisor, Stanley Ford.

Taylor, who did not come to France for the trial, is accused of violating guidelines by replacing a wear strip on the DC-10 with titanium instead of a softer metal. The wear strip was attached to an engine.

Claude Raffin, left, Henri Perrier, centre, and Claude Frantzen attend the Air France Concorde crash court case in Pontoise, north of Paris, on Feb. 3, 2010. ((Francois Mori/Associated Press))
His one-time supervisor, retired maintenance chief Stanley Ford, 70, is also facing manslaughter charges for validating the strip's installation. Ford argued in court that his job was mainly administrative and that he had to have confidence in mechanics' ability to perform their jobs.

The prosecution also accuses three French officials of underestimating trouble spots on the Concorde itself, and they are also charged with manslaughter.

The prosecutor requested a two-year suspended sentence for 80-year-old Henri Perrier, who headed the Concorde program from 1978-1994, and argued for acquitting French engineer Jacques Herubel and Claude Frantzen, former chief of France's civil aviation authority.

While France's aviation authority concluded the crash could not have been predicted, a judicial inquiry determined that the plane's fuel tanks lacked sufficient protection from shock and said officials had been aware of the problem since a series of incidents in 1979.

Early in the trial, lawyers for Continental argued that investigators had failed to follow up leads from 23 witnesses who said a fire broke out on the Concorde eight seconds before it even reached the metal debris.

Continental filed a suit last week accusing Air France of obstructing justice, saying that a document in the case file went missing and suggesting Air France was at fault.

Air France responded by filing its own suit Thursday accusing Continental of slander.

The Concorde, which zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three hours, was taken out of service in 2003. The program, operated by Air France and British Airways, hosted legions of rich and famous passengers.