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Editorial Comment - Criminal Behaviour?

Posted Thu 17th Dec 2015 | Airline

One of the perils of a long tenure in any position, in any industry, is the tendency to view a “new” event as merely a repetition of an old one. In other words, we shrug, emit something like “What can you do, I’ve seen this movie before” and then resume our day to day responsibilities – specifically, those activities that put a roof over our head and bread on the table.

The trouble is, for most of us in aviation, that paycheque is issued by an industry under continuous assault from all manner of sources. Whether we like it or not, the often misinformed views of the public very often translate into the development of wrong-headed public policy, and the encouragement of anti-aviation zealots. Bearing up amidst statements like “Close the town airport, those little airplanes are dangerous,” or “Those jets cause most of the global warming”, can be, needless to say, quite personally challenging.

When confronting misinformation, it’s up to all of us to vigorously engage and bombard the offender(s) with facts. Aviation has long suffered from widespread public ignorance, but admittedly, it has also generally failed to communicate effectively with both the public and elected officials. That failure is never more on display when we encounter the results – i.e. misguided policies that harm the industry commercially and/or don’t add to the safety equation.

One particular memorable exchange occurred for me about a year ago at a New Years’ Party. Upon learning of the industry I represent, one slightly inebriated luminary announced “We’d all be a lot better off if those over-paid pilots faced criminal charges for ‘their’ accidents.”

I suspect it’s fair to say that such encounters would cause most of us to dig deep into our repositories of professionalism and restraint. In this case, I believe I found what I was looking for, as neither drink nor blood was evidently spilled.

The exchange did cause me to think again about the unfortunate and increasing international trend of “criminal” prosecution of aircrew and other aviation professionals as a result of accidents and incidents. Several cases in recent years have pointed to the urgent need for aircrews to be better educated on international aviation law.

It’s apparent that two parallel investigations are launched after an aviation incident – one technical and one judicial. The technical investigation’s mandate is solely to make safety recommendations to prevent recurrence. And as we know, this industry has an extraordinarily impressive record in doing just that. On the other hand, the judicial investigation has the goal of identifying fault, and to assign blame for criminal and civil liability. The predicament is obvious for those parties that had a role in the accident – a dilemma over supplying information that the industry relies upon to enhance safety and prevent a recurrence, and the danger that the same information can be used against them in criminal prosecution. Throw in a dog’s breakfast of different national legal systems, anti-aviation extremists – even government and corporate corruption – and aviation professionals may find themselves in an entirely unfair and tenacious situation, possibly even faced with criminal charges in one country but not in another.

Sidney W.A. Dekker from Lund University has written extensively on the folly of turning human error into a crime. His view – and my own – is that progress on safety means embracing a systems view and ceasing the focus on blame. “Criminalising human error is hostile to both the systems view and moving beyond blame,” says Dekker. “It singles out individuals under the banner of ‘holding them accountable’ for outcomes that in reality rely on many more contributions.”

Critically, any trend towards criminalisation is at odds with Safety Culture. Dekker maintains that the demonstrated effects “…include the silencing of incident reporting, polarization of stakeholder attitudes and positions, and destabilization of industrial relations.” Dekker, and many others, state that there’s simply no evidence of any safety benefits.

Perhaps the real criminal behaviour is demonstrated by litigators who intentionally focus on very rare cases of pilot human error and then strive to prosecute that individual for “negligence.” I submit that a quick look at a few words from James Reason might be instructive – Swiss cheese and all.

Safe travels,

Chris Lehman
CAT Editor in Chief

Published in CAT Magazine issue 6/2015

Authored by Fiona Greenyer
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