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Culture clashes

The subject of offset track flying has been debated for years with no useful conclusions emerging. This has to be resolved

The head-on collision in Brazil last September was the wake-up call, but it seems nobody woke up. The following may be a sidebar to the intended theme of this comment, but immediately after this shocking accident, Brazil's judiciary leapt into action and the whole legal and social culture in that country - just as it is in 97% of the world's states - was conditioned to start looking for who was to blame.

If you can blame something or somebody, you can punish them. Then, feeling good about having nailed the wrongdoer, you can consign the issue to the history books. There is no need to do anything for the future because, with others having witnessed the punishment, surely nobody else would dare make the same mistake again.

Whatever imperfections the investigators find in Brazil's air traffic management system - and whether they find there were any actual mistakes by controllers or by any of the pilots of the two aircraft - one thing is certain: if each of the crews of those two aircraft had chosen to offset their aircraft just 100m (330ft) to the right of the airway centreline, all the people who died in the collision would still be alive.

Question: so why do we bring up the subject of track offsets now, nearly five months after this accident? Answer: because it was so obvious at the time, it seemed pointless to spell it out.

At last week's ATC Maastricht conference, one of the speakers saw fit to bring up the subject of clashes of culture within the air transport and aviation industry. If the industry at large sees itself as a single culture, Bill Voss does not. Voss is the new president of the Flight Safety Foundation and the former director of the International Civil Aviation Organisation's Air Navigation Bureau. He believes the aviation industry has its internal schisms.

Pilots and controllers or - to put it more formally - the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations and the world's air navigation service providers, are living on different planets.

Those are our words, not Voss's, but his meaning was the same. They are failing to communicate. A man with Voss's pedigree would be well placed to make a statement of that kind with credibility.

Once there were good reasons not to allow track offsetting. Those reasons died with the advent of global navigation satellite systems, which arrived more or less simultaneously with sophisticated flight management systems and the developing concept of area navigation - rather than beacon-to-beacon flying.

Meanwhile, there has been no realistic review of the fatal characteristics of clinically accurate centreline navigation when a flight-level error is unintentionally fed into the system by whatever means.

Voss is right. Old prejudices have to go, and a real review of the alternatives must take place.

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