Almost 10 years after the July 2000 Aerospatiale/British Aerospace Concorde crash at Paris Charles de Gaulle, five people are facing charges of manslaughter over the deaths the accident caused. It throws, once again, into sharp focus the issue of the automatic criminal prosecution that, in some states, follows air accidents as night follows day.
This trial is not about ambulance-chasing lawyers sueing everyone in sight on a no-win, no-fee basis. The compensation that was due to those affected by this accident has been paid. This is about the French judiciary exercising its right to debate these essentially speculative charges in a public forum at huge cost. Over the past nine years the lawyers have collected 80,000 pages of evidence. The trial is expected to take four months.
The history of French criminal prosecutions following air accidents shows that they normally end with the accused being acquitted. On the rare occasion when one is convicted, the sentence is usually suspended.
So what's it all about? An accident is an unintended event, and the Concorde crash was an accident. Five people, two from Concorde's manufacturer Aerospatiale, two from Continental Airlines, and one from the French aviation authority the DGAC, have been charged with manslaughter. After all, 113 people died in the crash. Surely heads should roll? But the airport that failed to keep the runway clear of debris is not being prosecuted. The airline that owned the aircraft is not seeing any of its employees prosecuted. This gives an air of inconsistency to a judiciary whose official motives are to ensure that justice is done to all who might be responsible in some way.
Risk is inherent in all aviation, as in all forms of transport. The accused can only be convicted of manslaughter if they knowingly ignored an unacceptable level of risk. What is "unacceptable" is subjective. What would have been considered acceptable when Concorde was designed in the 1960s and 1970s might not be now. When Concorde's vulnerability to damage was discovered in its early years, mitigating design changes were put in place. But were they enough? What is enough?
This case is a dream for the lawyers. They can strut the courtroom for four months parading their intellect and oratory, and get paid.
And does aviation benefit? Concorde will never fly again, so any lessons will have no relevance for it, nor for in-service subsonic types as their designs are so radically different. This case is an expensive, irrelevant ritual.