Eurocontrol’s plans for converting the world to a Just Culture

Few people understand the concept of a ‘just culture’ as it refers to aviation safety reporting. Or in any other industry for that matter. Most people don’t know what it is or what it’s for.

I’m not sure why Eurocontrol should be the first agency to carry out an analysis of why this ignorance exists, and of how societies and industry could be made better informed. But the agency has produced two readable, reasonably compact documents that I would commend to anyone who cares about aviation safety - but especially to air navigation service providers (ANSP) and national aviation authorities. They are downloadable, free, too.

Their titles are rather lugubrious, but don’t let that put you off. The first is ‘Just Culture Guidance Material for Interfacing with the Judicial System’, the second ‘Just Culture Guidance Material for Interfacing with the Media’.

I quote from the introduction to the first: “Setting up a Just Culture revolves around three questions: different States have so far tried, to a greater or lesser extent, to address the problems at the heart of a Just Culture in different ways. While they may differ considerably
in outward appearance, all these efforts actually centre on the reconciliation of three key questions:
1. Who in the State, ANSP or society gets to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour?
2. What and where should the role of domain expertise be in judging whether behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable?
3. How protected against judicial interference are safety data (either the safety data from incidents inside of ANSPs or the safety data that come from formal accident investigations)”

The documents examine these issues, and propose ways in which States that don’t have a just culture – but which recognise its potential benefits - could sow the seeds that would create a legal culture in which it might flourish. The second document deals extensively with the importance of the media in influencing the thinking of all people in society, from those in the government and the judiciary to ordinary air travellers. The industry does not do anything like enough, Eurocontrol proposes, to inform journalists about itself and its operations, so the journalistic ignorance that results in misreporting is largely laid at the industry’s own door.

Naturally, Eurocontrol is concerned particularly to see a just culture working in the ATC and air traffic management sector.

I quote again: “In any type and level of communication [with the media], the approach should be based on honesty – journalists equate transparency of information with honesty. But being perceived as transparent is difficult for ATM, as the system’s complexity has the effect of confusing those who do not understand it. Lack of comprehension can create misunderstanding, and since journalists are under intense pressure to deliver stories quickly, they often begin to construct a story before they fully understand the issues or the context. The resulting story can disappoint the ANSP, and a mutual mistrust can begin to develop.”

The agency then explains the options for attempting to change that state of affairs.

This is an ambitious project, but full marks to Eurocontrol for doing something while other people are just wringing their hands about it.