Airbus may face charges over 2009 Rio-Paris crash

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 17, 2011 7:23 AM
Airbus may face charges over 2009 Rio-Paris crash

A French judge will decide Thursday whether to file preliminary charges against planemaker Airbus over the 2009 crash of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean with 228 people aboard.

No one survived the crash _ the worst in Air France's history _ and the cause remains unclear.

The investigating judge will meet with lawyers from Airbus in Paris on Thursday, and could issue preliminary charges pending further investigation.

The judge then meets with Air France lawyers on Friday, and the airline could also face charges.

Charges against Airbus, the world's leading planemaker by orders in 2010 and rival to Chicago-based Boeing Co., would be unusual but not unprecedented. Airbus employees have been charged in France in previous crashes.

The criminal probe centers around what happened to Air France flight 447, an Airbus 330 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, on 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.

"As long as we have not found the black boxes, no one can explain what happened," Airbus spokesman Jacques Rocca told The Associated Press ahead of the judge's decision Thursday.

He said the planemaker's lawyers will stress to the judge the company's efforts to recover the flight recorders. "For us, this is a 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 problems with the type of speed sensor that malfunctioned on the doomed jet, The Associated Press has reported. But air safety authorities did not order their replacement until after the crash.

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).

___

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.