Air France Suing Continental Over Concorde

Air France and its insurers are suing U.S. company Continental Airlines over its possible role in the July Concorde disaster that killed 113 people, a spokeswoman for the French carrier said today.

French investigators believe a strip of metal fell off a Continental DC-10 at a Paris airport and subsequently punctured a wheel on the doomed Air France Concorde during its takeoff, triggering the fiery crash.

“A piece from a Continental Airlines plane could have caused the Concorde accident,” the Air France spokeswoman told Reuters.

She added that airlines were legally responsible for damage caused if parts dropped off their aircraft.

Continental said on Tuesday it was aware litigation was being prepared against it, but said investigations had so far yielded no definite proof that it was linked to the crash.

Air France and Continental have long-standing agreements that give the French company access to 97 U.S. destinations. The two firms are also partners along with four other airlines in an Internet business-to-business venture.

“These accords are not being put into question by this suit,” the Air France spokeswoman said.

The legal action was lodged by Air France and its insurer, the Reunion Aerienne consortium, at a court in Pontoise, outside Paris, which is handling the legal side of the disaster.

Huge Compensation Bills Expected

An insurance source told Reuters that Reunion Aerienne wanted Continental to cover all costs involved in the disaster — a bill that could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Air France Concorde burst into flames as it roared down the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Unable to abort takeoff, the pilot struggled in vain to control the supersonic jet before it plunged into a nearby hotel, killing all aboard and four people on the ground.

Investigators believe a thin metal strip lying on the runway punctured one of Concorde’s tires, hurling chunks of rubber into its fuel tanks and sparking the catastrophic blaze.

French and British aviation authorities last month withdrew Concorde’s airworthiness certificate, saying a burst tire should not be able to bring a plane down. Only Air France and British Airways operate the distinctive needle-nosed planes.

French investigators said this month that the metal strip appeared to be identical to one missing from a Continental DC-10. The company confirmed that the piece could have come from its plane, but has not accepted any link the disaster.

“At this stage in the investigation there is no conclusive evidence that Continental is involved in the Concorde crash,” a spokesman for the airline said in London on Tuesday.

“Continental will continue to cooperate fully with all the French authorities investigating the accident,” he added.

Air France has said it will compensate the families of those killed in the July 25 accident. It must also pay compensation to the owner of the destroyed hotel.

The airline’s insurers have so far declined to name any compensation sum and German lawyers are pushing for a settlement in the United States, where courts sanction higher payouts.