French Court Says Airbus, Air France Liable for Damages in 1992 Crash

A court in northeastern France ruled Tuesday that aircraft manufacturer Airbus and carrier Air France are liable to pay damages for a 1992 plane crash that killed 87 people near the German border.

The court in Colmar acquitted six defendants - including former aviation officials and an ex-Airbus executive - who faced criminal charges in the case. However, it pinned responsibility on Airbus, which manufactured the crashed airliner, and Air France, which absorbed the now-defunct carrier, Air Inter. An amount for damages has yet to be determined.

The trial, which started in May, centered on the six defendants, who had faced manslaughter charges and up to 2 years in prison. The court found that none could be held personally responsible for the crash. It did not immediately explain its reasoning for deeming Air France and Airbus liable for damages.

Airbus spokeswoman Barbara Kracht said the company extended its sympathies to the victims' families, but she declined to speak about the court decision. Air France declined to comment.

A twin-engined Airbus A320 belonging to Air Inter, a now-defunct domestic airline, crashed on Jan. 20, 1992, on the short flight from the city of Lyon to the eastern city of Strasbourg, as it prepared to land.

Nine people survived the crash and freezing cold on the 760-meter (2,500-foot) high Mont-Sainte-Odile, and were found after a four-hour search.

It remains unclear what caused the plane to start its rapid descent. The investigation into conflicting theories dragged on for years before the trial began at last in May in Colmar.

The defendants acquitted in the trial were Bernard Ziegler, technical director of Airbus at the time; Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, then head of France's civil aviation agency DGAC at the time; Claude Frantzen, head of training at DGAC; two former Air Inter officials; and Eric Lammari, an air traffic controller.

Investigators considered the argument that the cockpit was ergonomically flawed. A crash inquiry in 1992 suggested there may have been confusion over cockpit controls used to set the speed of descent. Airbus later made changes to the display based on the investigators' recommendations.

The 1992 crash inquiry also found Air Inter responsible for failing to equip its A320s with a Ground Proximity Warning System. However, experts did not agree on whether that contributed to the crash.

The Air Inter crash was the third involving an A320 - which uses a "fly-by-wire" computer rather than mechanical links to the cockpit controls to steer the plane - since the aircraft entered service in April 1988. Two previous accidents were blamed on pilot error, but some aviation officials suggested computer malfunctions might have contributed to the Mont-Sainte-Odile crash.

The trial has come during a bruising year for Airbus. Its parent company, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., has seen its stock tumble and suffered months of management turmoil over costly delays to the A380 superjumbo, the world's biggest passenger plane.

Copyright: The Associated Press WorldStream - 11/8/06

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