PARIS — Twelve years after the crash of an Air France Concorde jet outside Paris that killed 113 people, a French appeals court on Thursday dismissed all criminal charges against Continental Airlines, despite saying that a stray part from one of its planes led to the crash of the supersonic jet. The ruling reverses an earlier court decision that found the U.S.-based carrier guilty of manslaughter.
The appeals court in Versailles dismissed manslaughter charges against Continental Airlines and two of its mechanics. The airline had been fined some $260,000 for its part in the July 2000 crash that killed 109 people onboard and four people on the ground.
Olivier Metzner, an attorney for Continental Airlines, argued that the Concorde had design flaws that made it vulnerable to disaster.
Metzner said the case was a "political issue" and that the Concorde was "unfit to fly."
But the appeals court upheld the findings of aviation investigators that the accident was the result of a chain of events that began with a metal strip on the runway that fell off a Continental Airlines jet. The part punctured one of the Concord's tires, which struck the plane's fuel tank, set off a fire, and brought down the jetliner.
The court upheld Continental's civil responsibility in the case and ordered the airline to pay $1.3 million in damages to Air France. That money is intended to compensate the airline for lost business, and to be used toward settlements to the victims' families.
Stephane Gicquel is the head of the victims’ association.
"They explained to us that the French system of air safety is not optimum," Gicquel said, "and that it allowed a plane to fly that should not have flown - but what's happening? In the end," he said, "we’re leaving here with a huge question mark over everything, and a feeling of anxiety."
The verdict is not the end of legal proceedings in the crash.
The chief engineer in charge of the supersonic program is set go on trial in January to determine his responsibility for the crash.
And now that the criminal case against Continental is over, Air France is free to sue the U.S. airline to recover the settlements to the victims’ families.