, PARIS, Dec 6 – A French court blamed Continental Airlines on Monday for the 2000 Concorde crash in which 113 died, but did not jail anyone for the disaster that effectively ended commercial supersonic air travel.
The court found the US airline criminally responsible for the Paris crash, caused by a strip of titanium that fell from a Continental DC-10 and later shredded the supersonic jet\’s tyre, which led to a fire in the fuel tank.
Continental was ordered to pay a fine of 200,000 euros for the crash and to pay Concorde\’s operator Air France a million euros in damages. The US airline said it would appeal against the ruling, which it termed "absurd".
The judge gave Continental employee John Taylor a 15-month suspended jail sentence for having incorrectly manufactured and installed the titanium strip.
His supervisor Stanley Ford, accused of approving Taylor\’s work without checking it, was acquitted, as were three French aviation officials, including the former head of the Concorde programme, 81-year-old Henri Perrier.
Perrier – who directed the Concorde programme at Aerospatiale, now part of EADS, from 1978 to 1994 – had been accused of ignoring warning signs from a string of incidents on Concorde planes before the accident outside Paris.
Flight 4590 to New York smashed into a hotel in a ball of fire just after take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000, killing 100 mostly German passengers and nine crew on board and four people on the ground.
The US airline issued a statement slamming the "absurd" ruling, which it said was aimed at deflecting responsibility from Air France.
"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, which was government-owned at the time and operated and maintained the aircraft, as well as from the French authorities responsible for the Concorde\’s airworthiness and safety," it said.
"To find that any crime was committed in this tragic accident is not supported either by the evidence at trial or by aviation authorities and experts around the world."
The court said French officials were guilty of "no serious misconduct" after being accused of failing to draw lessons from exploding tyre incidents that dogged Concorde from 1979 until the fleet was permanently grounded in 2003.
The officials had made design changes to strengthen the supersonic jet\’s tyres but not the fuel tanks, one of which was ruptured by shredded rubber from the burst tyre.
While clearing the aviation officials of criminal charges, the court ruled that plane maker EADS bears some civil responsibility and should pay 30 percent of any compensation to victims\’ families and Continental the rest.
Most of the families of the people who died in the crash agreed not to take legal action in exchange for undisclosed levels of compensation from Air France, EADS, Continental and Goodyear tyre maker.
Continental had denied that the titanium strip triggered the disaster by shredding Concorde\’s tyres, with lawyer Olivier Metzner insisting the supersonic jet had already been on fire for 700 metres (yards) of runway.
Metzner maintained throughout the four-month trial hearings that ended in May that Air France\’s maintenance was negligent and the plane should never have been allowed to fly.
But the court ruled that "none of the evidence collected or witness testimony corroborates" this theory, instead criticising Continental for its "defective maintenance."
A separate suit by Air France against Continental for commercial damages has been on hold pending the outcome of the criminal trial.
The prosecution had demanded a fine of 175,000 euros for Continental and suspended jail terms for the two Americans as well as for Perrier, who was absent from court for health reasons.
During their 27 years of service, the jets suffered dozens of tyre blowouts or wheel damage that in several cases pierced the fuel tanks – a flaw that Perrier\’s team and the French civil aviation were accused of missing.