French court holds Continental Airlines responsible for 2000 Concorde crash

A French court found Continental Airlines guilty of causing an Air France Concorde to crash 10 years ago.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 6, 2010; 6:24 PM

PARIS - After 10 years of legal wrangling, a French court ruled Monday that Continental Airlines was responsible for the crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people and contributed to the demise of the supersonic airliner, which could jet the rich and famous across the Atlantic in about three hours.

The court, in the Paris suburb of Pontoise near the crash site, imposed a $260,000 fine on Continental and ordered it to pay Air France $1.3 million in damages. The judges said that would help compensate the French national carrier for payments made to the victims and for the deterioration of its image after the needle-nosed aircraft caught fire on takeoff and plowed into a hotel at Gonesse near Charles de Gaulle International Airport in July 2000.

Beginning in 1976, the Concorde, a Franco-British technological feat that became an icon of its era and the pride of Europe's aeronautic industry, transported an elite class of passengers in delta-winged luxury at Mach 2.2. Despite the glamour, it was retired by Air France and British Airways in 2003, not only because of bad publicity generated by the Gonesse crash, but also because fuel consumption and ticket prices made it commercially unviable without government subsidies.

The fatal fire, the Pontoise court found, was caused by a series of mishaps that began when a tire exploded after running over a 16-inch metal strip that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC10 that had taken off from the same runway shortly before the Concorde. The court ruled that the Continental mechanic who had attached the metal strip, John Taylor, was also responsible; it sentenced him to a 15-month suspended prison term.

Continental's leader lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said that he would appeal the ruling, setting the stage for more competing investigations and promising to prolong the legal jousting that has gone on for a decade and been bonanza for several legal firms.

"This judgment was rendered in the name of patriotism," Metzner told reporters. "The icon that was the Concorde was respected."

A Continental spokesman, Nick Britton, issued a statement calling the ruling "absurd," the Associated Press reported.

"Portraying the metal strip as the cause of the accident and Continental and one of its employees as the sole guilty parties shows the determination of the French authorities to shift attention and blame away from Air France," he said.

Metzner had argued that the metal strip was not what caused the crash. The fire, he told the court, broke out before the Concorde's tire was punctured. As part of his defense, Continental had an elaborate film produced, purporting to show the fire raging as the sleek aircraft roared toward takeoff speed, but the Pontoise judges were not convinced.

The plane was in the air only a few minutes before it plunged to the ground, killing all 109 aboard and four hotel employees. Most of the passengers were Germans on their way to a vacation.

Metzner's legal team also had maintained that Air France and the aircraft constructor, at the time called Aerospatiale, were reckless in allowing the plane to continue flying even though there had been previous problems with the tires of its landing train.

The arguments last spring after years of rival investigations occupied the court for four months, in a hearing that weighed civil and criminal issues simultaneously. The panel took more than six months to digest the material and render its decision.

Rejecting Metzner's arguments, the court dismissed accusations against Air France and Aerospatiale executives. It also dismissed a parallel charge brought by public prosecutors against Henri Perrier, who ran the Concorde program from 1978 to 1994 at Aerospatiale, which is now known as European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Co., or EADS.

At the same time, it ascribed a portion of responsibility to EADS as a company, accepting the argument that the company had not been rigorous enough in following up on reports of problems.

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