A French judge filed preliminary manslaughter charges Thursday against Airbus over the 2009 crash of an Air France jet _ opening a rare criminal investigation against a corporate powerhouse.
The order from Judge Sylvie Zimmerman targeting the European planemaker centers on the June 2009 crash into the Atlantic of an Airbus A330 bound for Paris from Rio de Janeiro, killing all 228 people on board.
The preliminary charges, which allow for further investigation, came after Airbus lawyers met with the judge on Thursday. Air France faces a similar hearing with the judge on Friday, and too could be targeted.
Airbus CEO Thomas Enders, speaking to reporters afterward, said the planemaker disagreed with the judge's "premature" decision _ especially in light of the still-unsolved mystery about the crash.
He said Airbus will continue to cooperate with the probe.
A group of relatives of about 80 crash victims, whose French name translates as the AF447 Support and Solidarity Association, expressed tentative approval of the judge's order.
"Of course we're content _ if that's the right word _ that there's a first step in the legal process to determine the eventual responsibility in this accident," said association vice president John Clemes, a Canadian financial company executive whose brother, Brad, died in the crash.
The preliminary charges against Airbus, the world's top planemaker by orders in 2010 and a rival of Chicago-based Boeing Co., are unusual but not unprecedented. Airbus employees have been charged in France over previous crashes.
Air France flight 447 went down June 1, 2009, amid an intense, high-altitude thunderstorm. Automatic messages sent by the plane's computers show it was receiving false air speed readings from sensors known as pitot tubes. Investigators have said the crash was likely caused by a series of problems, and not just sensor error.
Specialists are launching a fourth undersea search effort next week for the plane's so-called black boxes, or flight recorders.
"We are convinced if we find the black boxes we'll be able to reconstruct what really happened on this tragic flight Air France 447," Enders said. Airbus officials say the search is a company priority.
Air France and Airbus will finance the estimated $12.5 million cost of the new search, in which three advanced underwater robots will scour the mountainous ocean floor between Brazil and western Africa, in depths of up to 4,000 meters (13,120 feet).
Already $27.5 million has been spent on three previous search attempts that failed to find Flight 447's voice and data recorders.
The exact role the sensors played in the crash may never be known without the flight recorders.
Airbus knew since at least 2002 about the pitot problems, The Associated Press has reported. But air safety authorities did not order their replacement until after the crash.
Clemes, of the victims' relatives group, told AP Television News the judge's order was "a clear message that the speed probes were unsafe _ and presumably people should have known or institutions should have known that they were unsafe."
The tubes, about the size of an adult hand and fitted to the underbelly of a plane, are vulnerable to blockage from water and icing. Experts have suggested that Flight 447's sensors, made by French company Thales SA, may have iced over and sent false speed information to the computers as the plane ran into a thunderstorm at about 35,000 feet (10,600 meters).
In November, Air France issued a memo to investigators saying the carrier had counted 15 incidents in which the sensors had iced over on the same aircraft type in the 10 previous months before the crash.
The airline said it had informed Airbus and Thales about those findings, and estimated that about 16 documents that traced Air France's exchanges with Airbus showed that the planemaker didn't respond to its concerns.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.