Decision due on charges over Air NZ crash

A controversial French prosecutor is expected to announce tonight whether he will take criminal action over a 2008 Air New Zealand Airbus crash which killed all seven people onboard.

Five New Zealanders and two Germans were killed when the Airbus A320 plunged into the Mediterranean off Canet-en-Roussillon on November 27, 2008.

The plane had been leased to a German company and was being returned to Air New Zealand after being repainted in Perpignan, in the south of France.

It is expected that attention will focus on what happened to the near-new plane when it underwent maintenance and re-painting at Perpignan's Europe Aero Services Industries (EAS).

It is highly unlikely any criminal action will be aimed at Air New Zealand.

Airbus and international regulatory authorities have already issued safety warnings about dangers associated with re-painting aircraft as a result of the accident.

Perpignan prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dreno yesterday gave a confidential briefing to Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe and the General Manager Airline Operations and Safety, Captain David Morgan.

New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission was not party to the briefing. They are officially attached to the Paris-based Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses (BEA) which is investigating the crash and has yet to produce a final report.

The Airbus had been leased to Germany's XL Airways and was due to return to Air New Zealand.

It was being flown from Perpignan under the command of two German pilots along with Air New Zealand pilot Captain Brian Horrell, 52, and engineers Murray White, 37, Michael Gyles, 49, and Noel Marsh, 35 and well as Civil Aviation Authority official Jeremy Cook, 58.

Prior to heading to Frankfurt the plane made an approach toward Perpignan and according to a BEA interim report "during a phase of flight at low speed, the crew lost control of the airplane, which crashed into the sea."

Dreno opened his criminal inquiry and at one stage seized the cockpit voice and flight data recorders as evidence. He would not let them out of France to be examined by their US manufacturers.

They were finally allowed out of France and when he obtained the voice recordings he broke aviation protocol by revealing to the media the nature of the last seconds of life for those on the flight deck.

Dreno said data retrieved from the flight data recorder showed the aircraft first pitched up suddenly before it fell "on its side" into the sea. He said it all happened "very quickly".

The US-based Flight Safety Foundation slammed his behaviour and said prosecutorial inference was harming the flight safety investigations.

BEA's interim report did not give a specific cause for the crash of the Airbus.

It said the Germans flying the plane had not received specific training for the flight they had taken that day.

Following the crash Airbus issued new safety recommendations, saying during painting and maintenance it was important to protect all aerodynamic data sensors.

It has also said that tests, such as low-speed tests, "must be performed at safe altitude and be preceded by a recall of basic rules as regards to minimum speeds and recovery actions".