Concorde crash verdict vindicates 'James Bond' of planes

Concorde crash verdict came down Monday, with a French court ruling that Continental Airlines was responsible for the 2000 disaster that killed 113 people and hastened the end of supersonic commercial flights.

By , Staff writer

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    An Air France Concorde takes off in this file photo taken at Roissy airport, near Paris, November 7, 2001 on its first commercial flight since the July 25, 2000 crash which killed 113 people.
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Today's court ruling in France on the 2000 Concorde crash was seen by some as vindication for the world’s first and only supersonic commercial jet.

The ruling found that Continental Airlines Inc. was “criminally responsible” for littering a piece of metal on the runway of Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000. The metal punctured a tire on Air France Flight AF4590 and spewed debris into the jet's engine, sparking a fire that downed the Concorde and killed all 109 people aboard and four people on the ground.

The judgment, however, is unlikely to go so far as to bring “the James Bond of airplanes” out of retirement.

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“Nobody is even talking about it,” says David Learmount, an aviation expert and airplane safety editor for Flight International magazine. “The technology to produce the son of Concorde exists, but the costs would be stratospheric.”

Museum trophy

The Concorde has not flown since 2003, when it was permanently grounded as a result of bad publicity from the crash in 2000 and also because of dwindling appetite for the jet’s exorbitant tickets. A roundtrip flight from New York to Paris cost up to $12,000.

“On commercial grounds, it will never go back into service again,” Mr. Learmount says by telephone from Sutton, England. “Most people would never have the chance to fly on the Concorde – it’s too expensive. But it’s the ultimate in glamour. It’s the James Bond of airplanes.”

The 202-ft. supersonic airliner could reach Mach 2, halving transatlantic flight time during its operations from 1969 until 2003. A flight from Paris to New York City took about 3-1/2 hours, compared with the eight hours required by today’s commercial jets.

Regardless of the 2000 crash, Learmount and John Hansman of MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics agree that the Concorde would likely be out of service today.

"It’s questionable whether it ever was economically viable," says Professor Hansman. "They really pulled it out of service because it was becoming prohibitively expensive to maintain and fly."

Only 20 Concordes were ever built, and today, those are trophy displays at aviation museums worldwide. The Museum of Flight in Seattle boasts “the only one on display on the West Coast and one of only four outside Europe,” according to its website.

Harmful to aviation safety?

Today’s verdict appears, however, to clear the air for Concorde and its creators. Houston-based airline Continental – now owned by United Airlines – and one of its mechanics were ordered to pay a $265,000 fine, along with $1.43 million to Air France to offset a $120 million compensation package the airline paid out to relatives of those killed in the catastrophe.

The lead defense lawyer for Continental vowed to appeal, calling it a judgment “rendered in the name of patriotism” and out of respect for “the icon that was the Concorde.”

Independent aviation industry analysts are also debating the merits of the case. Learmount says it is at best meaningless and at worse damaging to flight safety: meaningless because the ruling will likely be overturned during Continental’s appeal, and damaging because it represents an alarming trend in which French courts automatically criminalize airplane disasters.

“This heightens the tension between the [airline] operators' need for a benign corporate and legal environment in which to run an internal voluntary safety reporting system, and the judiciary's duty to examine data to determine whether a failure was criminal or not, which tends to kill voluntary disclosure,” Learmount wrote in a recent article for Flight Global.

John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former US National Transportation Safety Board member, agreed that France runs a risk by prosecuting everyone from a Continental Airlines mechanic to the Concorde program director.

“Everyone clams up,” he told Bloomberg News. “It makes an additional burden on the investigators to try to ferret out the facts. If you think even remotely that you’re going to be charged criminally with something, why would you say anything?"

MIT's Hansman says the United States justice system rarely investigates criminal responsibility for airline accidents, and "a number of people feel [the French] approach is not the right way to go."

"In general, every time we have an accident, we learn from it," he says. "If people are concerned about criminal liability, they may not be open to investigating what happened."

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