A new EU law intended to ensure the independence of air accident investigations was approved by the European Parliament on 21 September. It also sets out, for the first time, to require investigators to take into account the interests of accident victims and their relatives.

The new law specifies that Europe's new standardised accident investigation system will be structured as a network of national agencies that can share resources, and which report to the relevant EU institutions, including the Commission and the European Aviation Safety Agency. Recommendations made by investigators will apply across Europe, not just nationally. It also requires the accident investigation function to be separate from regulatory authorities, and it is intended to protect statements taken from individuals by a safety investigator, as well as voice and image recordings taken inside cockpits and air traffic control units.

The latter information, says the European Parliament, will not be available outside the accident investigation unless there is "an overriding reason" for disclosure to the judiciary. The intention is to ensure that people can testify without fear to the investigators, rather than invoking their right to silence, a choice they would be entitled to take if they believed their testimony would be used by prosecutors.

In addition, each member state must set up a civil aviation accident emergency plan and require that all airlines registered there have a plan to assist victims of accidents and their relatives.

EU airlines, as well as non-EU airlines departing from an EU airport, would be obliged to produce a list of all those on board an aircraft "within two hours of the notification of the occurrence of an accident to the aircraft". The names can only be made public after the families or close relatives of the passengers have been informed by the authorities, and with the relatives' approval. A list of any dangerous goods on the aircraft will have to be released by the airline immediately.

The Commission has been given until the end of 2011 to draft an update of the air safety occurrence reporting directive. EASA will have access to the safety occurrence reports produced by Member States, may be invited to advise in accident investigations, and will have to oversee the application of recommendations. Any aviation authority that decides not to accept a recommendation will have to provide justification.

The law was approved by 604 votes to 11, with 26 abstentions.

The European Cockpit Association says the new law brings many improvements, but it criticises Parliament for not providing absolute protection from the judiciary for the information provided to the accident investigation by witnesses.

Source: Flight International