CERGY, France (AFP) - - US airline Continental and two of its employees are to stand trial for manslaughter over the crash of an Air France Concorde airliner in 2000 that killed 113 people, officials said Thursday.
A former French civil aviation official and two senior members of the Concorde programme will be tried on the same charge, with proceedings expected to start early next year and last two to three months, judicial officials said.
The New York-bound Concorde crashed in a ball of fire shortly after take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000, killing all 109 people on board and four workers on the ground.
A French accident inquiry concluded in December 2004 that the disaster was partly caused by a strip of metal that fell on the runway from a Continental Airlines plane that took off just before the supersonic airliner.
The Concorde ran over the super-hard titanium strip, which shredded one of its tyres, causing a blow-out and sending debris flying into an engine and a fuel tank.
Continental Airlines is charged over a failure to properly maintain the aircraft along with two US employees: John Taylor, a mechanic who allegedly fitted the non-standard strip, and airline chief of maintenance Stanley Ford.
But the former Concorde officials and French civil aviation boss are also accused of failing to detect and set right faults on the supersonic aircraft, brought to light during the investigation and thought to have contributed to the crash.
Henri Perrier, 79, was director of the first Concorde programme at Aerospatiale, now part of the EADS group, from 1978 to 1994, while Jacques Herubel, 73, was Concorde's chief engineer from 1993 to 1995.
Both men are accused of having underestimated the importance of a string of prior incidents involving burst tyres on Concorde aircraft.
Finally Claude Frantzen, 71, director of technical services at the civil aviation authority DGAC from 1970 to 1994, is accused of overlooking a fault on Concorde's distinctive delta-shaped wings, which held its fuel tanks.
The trial will aim to pin down the share of responsibility of the US airline, the Concorde and French aviation officials.
There will be few civil plaintiffs in the case, since most of the victims' families agreed not to take legal action in exchange for compensation from Air France.
Throughout the eight-year investigation, Continental pledged to fight any charges in the case. A successful prosecution is expected to result in millions of euros (dollars) in damages against the airline.
For Olivier Metzner, lawyer for Continental Airlines, "any plane in good condition would have resisted that metal strip, but the Concorde was a wreck. But of course you can't say that because it is a national treasure."
But the lawyer for the DGAC, Daniel Soulez Lariviere, dismissed as a "fantasy" suggestions that faults on the Concorde were overlooked because of national pride.
"The tearing-off of the reservoir panel is something that had never happened before, and that we did not not know was possible."
The Concorde crash began the process which led to all Concordes, both French and British, being taken out of service in 2003.
The plane, born of British and French collaboration, embarked on its maiden commercial flight in 1976. Only 20 were manufactured: six were used for development and the remaining 14 entered service, flying mainly trans-Atlantic routes at speeds of up to 1,350 miles (2,170 kilometres) per hour.