Air France Under Scrutiny Over Safety Incidents

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PARIS — Air France pilots are under scrutiny after a series of incidents that have raised concerns over safety protocols on flights operated by the French flagship carrier, prompting aviation investigators to reprimand the airline last week.

The latest incident to come to light involved two pilots who were suspended after a physical fight in the cockpit of an A320 plane in flight from Geneva to Paris in June, a spokesman for Air France said Monday, confirming a report in the French newspaper La Tribune. He added that the flight continued on and landed safely.

The news of the fight has come amid broader concerns about flight safety at Air France. A few days ago, French investigators issued a report saying the airline’s pilots lacked rigor in following safety procedures.

Investigators said several recent incidents suggested “that a certain culture has been established among some Air France crews, favoring a propensity to underestimate the benefits of a strict application of procedures for safety.”

The dispute between the two pilots on the Geneva-Paris flight began shortly after takeoff when one refused to follow an instruction, according to La Tribune. After one of them reportedly hit the other, the two grabbed each other’s collars. Cabin crew quickly intervened, and one crew member spent the rest of the flight in the cockpit to prevent the fight from resuming, the article added.

Mathieu Guillot, the Air France spokesman, confirmed that the two pilots had exchanged “inappropriate gestures” in what he described as a physical altercation, but he did not elaborate on it. He added that the suspended pilots “are awaiting a managerial decision on the outcome and treatment of the incident.”

The report on Air France published last week by the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety, a French government agency that investigates aviation accidents and incidents, warned of poorly observed safety procedures by pilots and issued recommendations to address the situation.

The report focused on a fuel leak on an Air France flight from Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo, to Paris in December 2020, which forced the plane to reroute and land in Chad. The agency said that the plane’s pilots did not rigorously follow procedures for a fuel leak and failed to shut down the leaking engine to reduce fire risk.

The pilots told investigators that they were worried that turning off the engine in the middle of the night could lead to complications during the landing, and believed that they had enough fuel left to divert the flight to Chad.

But the decision not to cut the power of the affected engine resulted in a flight that was less safe and that the pilots avoided a fire “by chance,” the report said.

The aviation agency said “the recurrence of investigations” on previous incidents that similarly involved pilots ignoring safety procedures showed that there was “an adjustment of the procedures or even a deliberate violation of them leading to a reduction of the safety margins” at Air France.

It also highlighted what it called “a culture favorable to this type of deviation,” pointing to some language in the Air France pilot handbook suggesting a substantial degree of autonomy when it comes to following safety procedures.

“Air France should put compliance with procedures back at the center of the company’s safety culture,” the report concluded.

Mr. Guillot said Air France considered the safety of its customers and crew members “its absolute priority” and added that the airline had announced that it would start a safety audit in a few months.

In a news release last week, the SNPL Air France Transavia, a union of French pilots, contested the conclusions of the report, saying that “flight safety and compliance with procedures are central to the work of Air France pilots” and that the airline’s feedback process on safety incidents was “one of the best in the world.”

The news of the fight and the publication of the report come at a critical time for Air France, which is facing involuntary manslaughter charges in an upcoming trial over the crash of a 2009 flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 10.

Investigators determined that the pilots, who were among the 228 people who died on the Rio-to-Paris flight, had been confused by faulty speed monitoring equipment, and Air France was accused of indirectly causing the tragedy by failing to provide sufficient training on how to react in case of malfunction of this equipment.