Airbus and Air France were acquitted of manslaughter charges by a French criminal court on Monday over their role in the 2009 crash of a flight from Rio to Paris that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board.
The verdict was a bitter disappointment for the families of the victims, who had battled for over a decade to bring Airbus, the aircraft manufacturer, and Air France, the main French airline, to trial.
“We are sickened,” Danièle Lamy, the president of Entraide et Solidarité AF447, an association of families of the victims, said after the court rendered its verdict, adding that she and members of other families were “desperate, dismayed, and angry.”
“Impunity prevails among the powerful,” said Ms. Lamy, whose son died in the crash.
But the ruling did not come as a surprise. At the end of the two-month trial last year, after reviewing all of the evidence, prosecutors had taken the unusual step of announcing that they would not seek convictions, arguing that there was not enough evidence to hold the companies criminally liable.
The court agreed. Before a courtroom packed with journalists and victims’ relatives, the head judge, Sylvie Daunis, read out a summary of the ruling, which acknowledged that the companies had shown “imprudence” and “negligence” in their handling of faulty sensors that were at the heart of the case.
But, the ruling said, there was no evidence that the crash would have been avoided if those failings had not occurred — something that would be required to secure a manslaughter conviction.
“Regarding the mistakes made by Airbus and Air France, no definite causal link with the accident was established,” Ms. Daunis said.
Both companies had repeatedly insisted that they were not responsible for the accident, which was the deadliest in Air France’s history.
No individual executives or managers were on trial, and Airbus and Air France were each facing a fine of 225,000 euros, or about $246,000 — a negligible figure compared to their bottom lines.
Families of some victims have already received financial compensation. But a guilty verdict would have carried the potential to seriously hurt the reputation of the two aviation heavyweights, after a stormy trial where the families had repeatedly expressed their frustration.
In October, chief executives for Airbus and Air France, who testified when the proceedings opened, were angrily heckled by some of the plaintiffs with cries of “Shame on you!” In December, exasperated by the prosecutors’ decision not to require a conviction, some families angrily stormed out of the courtroom.
“The company will always remember the victims of this terrible accident and expresses its deepest sympathy to all their relatives,” Air France said in statement, according to the news agency Agence-France Presse, while Airbus expressed its “compassion” for the families of the victims.
“Airbus reaffirms the full commitment of the company and all its employees to keep prioritizing a safety-first culture across the company and the aviation sector,” the company said in a statement.
Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, crashed on June 1, 2009, after it was caught in an overnight thunderstorm several hours after leaving Rio de Janeiro for Paris. Ice crystals threw off the plane’s airspeed sensors and its autopilot disconnected.
Investigators later determined that the bewildered pilots had faced a barrage of alarms and conflicting data from instruments in the cockpit. In a period that did not even last five minutes, they struggled to regain control of the plane as it stalled, went into a free fall, and slammed into the ocean between Brazil and West Africa.
None of the 216 passengers and 12 crew members survived. The victims included dancers, doctors, engineers and executives from nations throughout Europe as well as from Africa, Asia, Canada, South America and the United States. Some were on business trips, others on vacation. Eight were children.
Black boxes from the crash were only recovered from the ocean floor two years later, after lying at a depth of over 10,000 feet.
In 2019, after years of tortuous investigations and dueling expert reports, magistrates handling the inquiry in France attributed the crash mainly to pilot error and decided to dismiss the case against Airbus and Air France. But a French court overruled the decision in 2021, ordering the two companies to stand trial.
A procession of experts — pilots, police officers, air traffic authorities and other aeronautic specialists — testified during the proceedings, delving deeply into the intricacies of flight safety, airplane piloting and aviation regulations.
Plaintiffs had accused Air France of insufficiently training its pilots on how to react when the airspeed sensors malfunctioned. They had also accused Airbus of underestimating the threat to safety in the event of failure by the sensors involved, which are known as Pitot tubes — small cylinders that sit outside the body of the plane to calculate airspeed.
The Pitot tubes had malfunctioned because of ice on other flights before the crash, and Airbus was accused of failing to urgently inform airlines and their crews about the problem. The sensors were replaced on Airbus planes worldwide only after the accident.
In its ruling, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that both companies had been negligent — enough to hold them civilly liable, but not criminally responsible.
Under the French criminal code, a manslaughter conviction would have required showing that there was a certain link, not just a probable one, between the companies’ failings and the deaths, the court said.
It was not clear, for instance, that changing the sensors would have avoided the accident, because some of them continued to ice over and malfunction — without causing crashes — even after they had been replaced, the court noted.
And the court also ruled that even if Air France had not given its pilots all necessary warnings about problems with the sensor, the pilots still had the necessary experience and training to react.
Alain Jakubowicz, one of the lawyers for Entraide et Solidarité AF447, acknowledged that the “razor-thin” legal distinction between the companies’ civil and criminal responsibilities was “difficult to understand.” But he said that failings by Air France and Airbus had been established, even if they had not been convicted. A hearing on the civil damages will be held in September.
“No, this accident was not due to fate,” Mr. Jakubowicz said. “Yes, there are responsibilities.”
But for families of the victims, who were hoping for a guilty verdict, the ruling was as confusing as it was infuriating.
“I’m having a very hard time understanding,” Ophélie Toulliou, whose brother died in the crash, said through tears after the verdict. “It makes no sense.”
Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.