Concorde Crash: Pay Up, United Continental

In 2000, Concorde flight Air France 4590 crashed outside of Paris, killing all 109 people on board and four people on the ground. Though this was the supersonic (it cruised at 1,350 miles per hour), government-subsidized Concorde’s only crash in 27 years of flight, the Paris incident was the expensive plane’s death warrant.

Who was to blame for the demise of this mach-2 icon? None other than Continental Airlines, according to a recent ruling. From the Telegraph:

Judges accepted the conclusions of a 2004 official accident report into the crash, which blamed a strip of metal left by a DC-10 run by Continental that had taken off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport just before the Concorde took to the skies.

The 17in titanium strip ruptured one of the supersonic plane’s tyres, sending rubber debris flying up that ruptured a fuel tank under a wing. Leaking kerosene then caught fire.

After a four-month trial, a French court in the Paris suburb of Pontoise found Continental Airlines guilty of “involuntary manslaughter” and fined the Houston-based airline €200,000 (170,000) and ordered it to pay a further €1 million to Air France for “moral prejudice” and harming its brand image. Among the five individuals prosecuted, only John Taylor, 42, the Continental mechanic who fitted the metal strip to the DC-10 was found guilty of manslaughter and handed a 15-month suspended prison sentence and fined €2,000. He had broken rules by using titanium, deemed a puncture risk due to its hardness, and had not fixed the strip well.

Maintenance oversights and aviation mechanic qualification problems have been endemic in the airline industry for years. In that sense, the Continental mechanic’s negligence was probably business as usual, but with disastrous consequences.

Air France compensated victims’ families in exchange for their not taking legal action years ago, according to the Telegraph. But the families of the four people killed on the ground hadn’t yet been compensated.

The judge also found Concorde parent EADS guilty of negligence. EADS will bear 30% of the damages payable; United Continental Holdings will pay the rest. Continental Airlines has appealed the ruling.

Bloomberg explains France’s slow response on the ruling:

France is one of the few countries where fatal accidents automatically prompt criminal probes to run parallel with investigations by civil authorities. The two-track approach bogged down the Concorde investigation, with the criminal trial starting almost 10 years after the crash and seven years after the supersonic jetliner’s last commercial flight.