French air crash trial begins after 14 years

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The tragic, puzzling and, above all, prolonged story of an Airbus crash which killed 87 people 14 years ago will finally come to court in Alsace today.

After one of the longest and most complex judicial investigations in French legal history, six people will appear in court in Colmar accused of partial responsibility for the crash of an Airbus A320 on the snowy slopes of Mont Sainte-Odile near Strasbourg in January 1992. The six accused include the designer of the Airbus A320, the retired director general of civil aviation in France, and the air traffic controller on duty at Strasbourg airport at the time of the crash.

The nine-week trial will be as gargantuan as the investigation. A 1,400 square- metre exhibition hall has been converted into a court room at a cost of €600,000 (£400,000) to accommodate the 80 lawyers, 349 civil parties and 34,846 pages of evidence. The court must decide why the Air Inter Airbus, on a short flight from Lyons, lost height too rapidly and veered slightly from its flight path on approach to Strasbourg airport.

The two relatively inexperienced pilots, who were both killed in the crash, had no inkling that they were off course. They made the standard announcement asking passengers to fasten their seat belts and lift tray tables, seconds before the aircraft crashed.

The trial has been repeatedly delayed by convoluted investigations and counter-investigations demanded by Airbus, the French aviation authorities and pilots' organisations.

In 2001, a group called Echo, representing the nine survivors and relatives of the 87 victims, brought a legal complaint against the French state for the slowness of the investigation. The complaint itself took four years to come to trial and was then adjourned. In January of this year, Echo brought another complaint before the European Court of Human Rights.

The length of the investigation means most of the technical failings and procedures accused of contributing to the crash have been superseded or changed.

Victims' families believe, nevertheless, that the trial could improve air safety by establishing the principle of responsibility for accidents of individual airline and aircraft company executives and public officials.

The six are accused of manslaughter and involuntary wounding and risk up to two years in prison and a €4,500 fine. All are pleading not guilty.

They include Bernard Ziegler, retired technical director of Airbus and designer of the A320, who is accused of creating a pilot position which was too cramped (and has since been changed). He is also accused of being responsible for the poor performance of the equipment which measured the distance between a landing aircraft and the runway.

Daniel Cauvin, retired inspector general of Air Inter (an airline which no longer exists), is accused of failing to equip the aircraft with equipment which gives warnings of the proximity to the ground. Jacques Rantet, operations director of Air Inter, is accused of rostering two inexperienced pilots to the flight.

Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, retired director-general of the French civil aviation department, is accused of failing to push for the mandatory use of "ground approach warning" equipment in France. Claude Frantzen, retired technical controller of civil aviation, is accused of the same thing.

Eric Lammari, an air traffic controller, is accused of making errors in guiding the aircraft.