PARIS - A French judge filed preliminary manslaughter charges Thursday against Airbus over the 2009 crash of an Air France jet opening a rare criminal investigation against a corporate powerhouse.
The order from Judge Sylvie Zimmerman targeting the European planemaker centers on the June 2009 crash into the Atlantic of an Airbus A330 bound for Paris from Rio de Janeiro, killing all 228 people on board.
Airbus chief Thomas Enders, speaking to reporters afterward, said the company disagreed with the judge's "premature" decision - especially in light of the still-unsolved mystery about the crash.
The preliminary charges, which allow for further investigation, came after Airbus lawyers met with the judge on Thursday. Enders said Airbus will continue to cooperate with the probe.
Charges against Airbus, the world's top planemaker by orders in 2010 and a rival of Chicago-based Boeing Co., are unusual but not unprecedented. Airbus employees have been charged in France in previous crashes.
Air France flight 447 went down June 1, 2009, amid an intense, high-altitude thunderstorm. Automatic messages sent by the plane's computers show it was receiving false air speed readings from sensors known as pitot tubes. Investigators have said the crash was likely caused by a series of problems, and not just sensor error.
Specialists are launching a fourth undersea search effort next week for the plane's so-called black boxes, or flight recorders.
"We are convinced if we find the black boxes we'll be able to reconstruct what really happened on this tragic flight Air France 447," Enders said. Airbus officials say the search is a company priority.
Air France and Airbus will finance the estimated $12.5 million cost of the new search, in which three advanced underwater robots will scour the mountainous ocean floor between Brazil and western Africa, in depths of up to 4,000 meters (13,120 feet).
Already $27.5 million has been spent on three previous search attempts that failed to find Flight 447's voice and data recorders.
The exact role the sensors played in the crash may never be known without the flight recorders.
Airbus knew since at least 2002 about problems with the type of speed sensor that malfunctioned on the doomed jet, The Associated Press has reported. But air safety authorities did not order their replacement until after the crash.
The tubes, about the size of an adult hand and fitted to the underbelly of a plane, are vulnerable to blockage from water and icing. Experts have suggested that Flight 447's sensors, made by French company Thales SA, may have iced over and sent false speed information to the computers as the plane ran into a thunderstorm at about 35,000 feet (10,600 meters).