A French appeals court overturned manslaughter convictions against Continental Airlines and a mechanic for the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde that killed 113 people, ruling that their mistakes did not make them legally responsible for the deaths.
The crash hastened the end for the already-faltering supersonic Concorde, synonymous with high-tech luxury but a commercial failure.
The programme, jointly operated by Air France and British Airways, was taken out of service in 2003.
In the accident, which occurred on July 25, 2000, the jet crashed into a hotel near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport soon after taking off, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground.
Most of the victims were Germans heading to a cruise in the Caribbean.
A mistake made weeks earlier and thousands of miles away by a Continental mechanic in Houston played a crucial role in the crash, the court found on Thursday.
According to the original ruling, the mechanic fitted the wrong metal strip on a Continental DC-10.
The piece ultimately fell off on the runway in Paris, puncturing the Concorde’s tyre.
The burst tyre sent bits of rubber into the fuel tanks, which started the fire that brought down the plane.
But the Concorde’s design left it vulnerable to shock, according to judicial investigators who said officials had known about the problem for more than 20 years.
The lower court ruled that though French officials had missed opportunities to improve the Concorde over the years, they could “be accused of no serious misconduct”.
Stephane Gicquel, head of a group of victims’ families, said Thursday’s ruling left them with “a sense of powerlessness.”
“The court explained to us that that plane was not supposed to fly, that the system was not perfect in France to assure the airline security and the court doesn’t conclude anything but a general discharge,” Gicquel said.
Parties including Air France and Continental compensated the families of most victims years ago, so financial claims were not the trial’s focus, the main goal was to assign responsibility.
“The lawyer said the original trial had been subjected to political meddling,” Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said following a news conference by the airline’s lawyer.
In France, unlike in many other countries, plane crashes routinely lead to trials to assign criminal responsibility, cases that often drag on for years.
At the time it was launched, the Concorde supersonic jet was the height of luxury, flying between New York and the European capitals of London and Paris in less than four hours, instead of a standard flight of over seven hours.
Flying west, British Airways boasted, the flight’s well-heeled travellers could effectively arrive at their destinations before they left.
In the years it took French judicial investigators to work their way to trial, amassing 80-thousand pages of court documents, the Concordes were revamped, retired and finally sent to museums.