Ten years ago, an Air France Concorde SST departing from Charles de Gaulle Airport ran over a strip of metal on the runway. One of the Concorde's tires exploded. A chunk of the debris from the tire punctured the Concorde’s fuel tank. Fuel leaked from the tank, and into an engine. The ensuing fire and engine failure brought down the aircraft. 113 people were killed.
The Crash Was Avoidable
The metal strip fell onto the runway from a Continental Airlines DC-10. Had Continental's mechanics attached it properly, it wouldn’t have fallen off. Continental's maintenance practices were sloppy.
It is not unusual for airplane tires to rupture during takeoff for one reason or another. On most airliners, tire blow-outs pose no serious safety threat. That's not the case with the Concorde. Unlike other aircraft, the Concorde's fuel tanks are positioned directly over the tires. The tanks are therefore at risk of being ruptured if a tire explodes. Furthermore, the aircraft's engines are positioned so that any fuel from a rupture could easily start a fire. That makes the Concorde design suspect.
This wasn’t the first time a blown tire ruptured a Concorde's fuel tank. In fact, there was a string of previous incidents. So the potential for disaster was obvious. Nonetheless, Air France, as well as the Concorde's manufacturer, chose to simply ignore the problem and hope for the best.
It was a bad decision.
The Criminal Trial
A criminal trial began in France in February. Yesterday, French prosecutors asked that Henri Perrier, the engineer who most refer to as the “father” of the Concorde, be sentenced to jail, but that the sentence be suspended. (Perrier is third from left in this 1969 photo.) Prosecutors asked for the same for the two Continental Airlines mechanics whose sloppy maintenance allowed the metal strip to end up on the runway.
Some suggest the trial is a colossal waste of time and effort. What, after all, is the point? How will the trial enhance aviation safety? Certainly, it won't help the families at all, will it?
No, it will not. In fact, such criminal prosecutions actually impede safety. If the mechanics and engineers who are involved in an aircraft accident investigation need to be concerned
about their own criminal liability, then it becomes exceedingly difficult to get from them information relevant to the cause of the crash.
I’ve written before about how "criminalization" of aviation negligence is a bad thing. (See posts here and here.) The best chance of finding out why an accident happened is through the civil process, not the criminal process. Criminalizing aviation negligence hinders, rather than enhances, the truth-finding process.
The Difference Between the US and Foreign Legal Systems
The US tort system requires wrongdoers to compensate those they injure. Lawsuits thus take the profit out of corporate shortcutting. In the end, safety is improved.
The legal systems of other countries do not focus on requiring negligent parties to compensate their victims. Nor are they designed to provide a financial incentive for corporations to be safe. Rather, they focus on punishment. But that approach doesn’t benefit anyone. In making corporate policy, management does not fear the remote prospect of criminal liability. Such systems thus do little to encourage an industry-wide safety culture.
The US tort system, on the other hand, does tend to bring about change in corporate policies. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the US air travel industry is widely viewed as the safest in the world.
The US Civil Lawsuit Arising from The Concorde Crash
I had the privilege of representing the families of the Concorde crew. In 2001, I filed their case in the United States. The US tort system allowed me quickly to learn of the string of other incidents that suggested the flaws in the Concorde's design. I also quickly discovered that the piece of metal that fell from the DC-10 was improperly attached to the aircraft by a Continental maintenance crew just weeks before it fell off.
The US lawsuit resulted in the responsible parties compensating the families for their losses. That compensation was paid years ago. Perhaps just as important, Continental changed its maintenance practices and Concorde's manufacturer fixed the aircraft’s design problems. (The Concorde’s fuel tanks were lined with Kevlar to make them impervious to tire explosions, and the tires were redesigned to better withstand the tremendous heat generated just as the aircraft takes off.) In short, the US legal system did its job relatively quickly and efficiently.
In contrast, nine years later, the French criminal proceeding continues to drag on. It will result in no compensation to the families. It will bring about no improvements in safety. All it will do is cause those involved in future aviation accident investigations to clam up for fear of criminal prosecution. The end result is that, in the future, it will be that much more difficult to figure out why an aviation accident occurred. It will be that much more difficult to bring about changes so that the accident won't happen again.