UPDATE 5-Continental, welder guilty in Concorde crash trial

* Airline welder gets 15-month suspended prison sentence

* Ruling could open the door to millions of euros in claims

* Continental says it will appeal “absurd” verdict

(Edits)

By Thierry Leveque

PONTOISE, France, Dec 6 (BestGrowthStock) – A French court on Monday
found Continental Airlines and a mechanic at the U.S. airline
guilty of involuntary manslaughter for their part in the 2000
Concorde crash, in a ruling Continental called “absurd”.

The verdict more than a decade after a deadly accident that
spelled the end of the supersonic airliner could now affect how
planes are maintained and inspected.

The court ruled that a small metal strip, which fell onto
the runway from a Continental aircraft just before the Concorde
took off, caused the crash, which killed 113 people.

Continental, which was fined 200,000 euros and ordered to
pay Concorde’s operator Air France (AIRF.PA: ) a million euros in
damages, said it would appeal a verdict it described as unfaire
and absurd.

Welder John Taylor was handed a 15-month suspended prison
sentence for having gone against industry norms and used
titanium to forge the piece that dropped off the plane.

“I do not understand how my client could be considered to
have sole responsibility for the Concorde crash,” lawyer
Francois Esclatine told French iTele television.

Continental, which has since been swallowed to form United
Continental Holdings (UAL.N: ), will have to pay 70 percent of any
damages payable to families of victims, the ruling said. Airbus
parent EADS (EAD.PA: ) would have to pay the other 30 percent.

The verdict exposes Continental and EADS to damages claims
that could run to tens of millions of euros if insurance
companies seek reimbursement for sums already paid to relatives.

Individual damages in such cases can reach some $3-4 million
in the United States, but tend to be lower in France where
damages for wrongful death are closer to $50,000 and economic
losses are compensated on a strict scale, legal specialists say.

A Continental spokesman said the ruling showed “the
determination of the French authorities to shift attention and
blame away from Air France … as well as from the French
authorities responsible for the Concorde’s airworthiness and
safety.”

The crash sped up the demise of the droop-nosed Concorde —
the fastest commercial airliner in history and a symbol of
Franco-British co-operation — as safety concerns coupled with
economic downturn after 9/11 drove away its wealthy customers.

CONCERN OVER CRASH TRIALS

The Air France (AIRF.PA: ) Concorde, carrying mostly German
tourists bound for a Caribbean cruise, was taking off from Paris
on July 25, 2000 when an engine caught fire. Trailing a plume of
flames, it crashed into a hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport.

All 109 passengers and four people on the ground died.

After modifications, the plane returned to service but its
operators, Air France and British Airways, retired it in 2003.

The court said EADS, which now owns the French factories
that partly built the Concorde airliners, had some civil
liability in the crash, which hastened the end of an era of
glamorous supersonic travel between London, Paris and New York.

EADS lawyer Simon Ndiaye said the company was still deciding
whether to appeal.

Three French aviation officials, including the former head
of the Concorde programme, Henri Perrier, were acquitted by the
court, as was Taylor’s supervisor at Continental.

The trial has led to warnings in the aviation industry that
taking crash investigations out of the hands of regulators and
placing them in the courts could discourage workers from coming
forward with information needed to prevent future accidents.

Kenneth Quinn, a former Federal Aviation Administration
chief counsel who advises the Flight Safety Foundation, called
the verdict “an affront to our outstanding aviation safety
records” and said it could impede co-operation on plane crashes.

“If there is wilful misconduct then criminal laws apply …
but attempting to put people behind bars or even handing out
suspended sentences for honest mistakes is going to dry up the
sources of information need to prevent the next crash.”

The court in the town of Pontoise north of Paris blamed
sub-standard maintenance practices for the fact that a 44
cm-long strip of titanium dropped off a Continental plane taking
off before the Concorde and punctured its tyres, sending debris
into the Concorde’s fuel tanks and sparking a fatal fire.
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Writing by Catherine
Bremer and Brian Love)

UPDATE 5-Continental, welder guilty in Concorde crash trial