The reason for the trip is sad enough: One year after the crash of an Air France jet en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009, relatives of the victims are planning to meet at Paris' Père Lachaise cemetary, where they will unveil a memorial to the 228 passengers who died on the flight, including 28 Germans.
More than 120 of those left behind are planning to travel from Brazil to Paris to take part in the ceremony. But many were unable to hold back their shock when they received the tickets Air France recently sent to them. They are booked late on a Sunday night on Flight AF447 aboard an Airbus aircraft. "That is exactly the same flight as the one that robbed us of our relatives and friends," said an angry Maarten van Sluys, who heads an organization representing victims' families. "Whatever Air France intended, it is in any case tasteless and without regard to our highly fragile emotional state," the Dutchman, who resides in Rio de Janeiro, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Most families of the deceased have accused Airbus and Air France of serious errors that they believe led to the catastrophe. They say the manufacturer installed a speed measurement system, the so-called pitot tube sensors, that have in the past iced over or failed during episodes of heavy turbulence. They also accuse Air France of failing to replace the faulty parts and, in some cases, of having refused to train its pilots for dealing with such dangerous situations. Investigators were unable to locate the Airbus aircraft's black boxes and it may be impossible to ever determine the exact cause of the crash.
Search for Flight Recorders Enters Final Phase
The final phase of a comprehensive search effort in the crash area recently began. Using submarines and sonar, investigators are seeking to trace the flight recorders of the Airbus longhaul aircraft. But the high-tech effort has so far failed to uncover any trace of the flight recorders.
Victims representative van Sluys says that relatives are suffering over their uncertainty about the cause of the accident. In addition to compensation payments, many want to know exactly what caused the crash so that a similar tragedy can be avoided in the future. But they don't have a lot of faith in the French authorities. And they suspect that the causes of the crash are being covered up.
The sensors removed from other A330 models were reportedly in "mediocre" or "very bad" shape. According to experts cited in court documents in a case brought by the victims: "That could have to do with the amount of time that had transpired since the last maintenance."
Could the Crash Have Been Prevented?
Could the failure of the pilot sensors and the possibly related crash of the jet have been prevented if the pitot tubes had been cleaned and maintained sufficiently often? That's the nagging question for the victims' families. "Many of them haven't set foot on a plane since the crash," van Sluys said. Many are now trying to pull it together because they really want to attend the memorial ceremony in Paris to honor the victims.
But it is "especially unreasonable" for these people to have to fly on an Airbus plane, said van Sluys.
That's why some of the victims' families suspect a troublesome ulterior motive on the part of Air France. They claim that in the lawsuits for damages, lawyers for the airline could refuse to assume the costs for psychiatric treatment. They say the company's lawyers could argue that the family members are already psychologically stable enough to fly an Airbus on the same route as the plane that crashed. "But I can't really imagine that Air France would be that unfair," says van Sluys, who added that he suspects employees at the airline had just been careless with the booking and may have just been acting pragmatically.
'They Just Wanted to Fill Up the Plane'
The Air France Airbus aircraft used on the stretch, which has been renamed from AAF447 to AF445, is reportedly flying with a number of empty seats. "They just wanted to fill up the plane and booked our hundred-person group on it," van Sluys said.
The victims association is now calling on Air France to rebook the group on one of the two Boeing aircraft that travel between Brazil and France each day. "I think that would make a lot of us feel better," he said.
Air France, for its part, denies it has a problem booking up the Airbus flight between Rio and Paris. The airline has also said it even planned to use a larger Airbus model than the A330 involved in the crash -- instead putting the passengers, including the families of the victims, on an A340 aircraft. The company also said it would be happy to book a ticket on a Boeing flight for any of the family members of the victims who felt uncomfortable flying on an Airbus aircraft. The company added that it was making considerable efforts to take the emotional needs of survivors into account.