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Safety cover-up

Europe has an air traffic management safety problem from which it has the power to free itself, but present culture discourages honesty

Most of Europe’s air traffic management (ATM) system has a cover-up culture. The fault does not originate with the air navigation service providers (ANSP), although their employees are part of it by default. This situation could be changed, and Europe has the means to make the necessary changes – but does it have the will to do so?

Politics and the law – or at least the way in which the law is wielded – are the origins of this safety problem. The way in which the problem manifests itself is that legal practice in any given country can set up a chain reaction powered by the fear of prosecution or punishment. In such a blame-based culture if an individual – say an air traffic controller – makes an unintentional mistake under pressure or is conscious that the system is imperfect, he/she will not dare to file a report to bring the issue to light despite the fact that a system exists to enable safety reporting. That fear of reporting means risk goes undetected, so measures to manage risk cannot be taken.

Since such a culture ensures no-one reports, entire trends go undetected until an accident occurs. Then the investigation opens the whole can of worms, and the cause-and-effect circle re-energises itself by seeking out and punishing the “guilty” party. The guilty party might have been the messenger himself, the messenger’s boss, or the messenger’s organisation. This system ensures that everyone in it is reminded that “being found out” is the true crime for which punishment is delivered. Of course legal sanctions in the case of a crime of culpable negligence or deliberate flouting of the law is justified, but often a criminal court is the wrong venue to assess what has occurred, and deterrence through punishment is counter-productive.

This is not a new issue, and it is a global one – not only a European one. But right now, while the foundations for the Single European Sky are being laid, Europe has the opportunity to change this culture within its own region. Eurocontrol is launching a campaign to change the situation in its own area of operations, partly because it sees that as its job, but also because the lack of a safety reporting culture within the ATM industry is far more of a problem than it is in other sectors of the European air transport business. Many individual airlines – and even the airline industry in general through the International Air Transport Association – have reduced or even completely overcome the cover-up problem, but ATM has not.

For years now Eurocontrol has had a system for receiving reports from ANSPs, de-identifying them and turning them into data from which trends and risks can be identified. But although some data has been gathered – usefully – Eurocontrol suspects there are trends developing that it will not know about until an accident happens.

It is all about fear: fear of the boss, fear for one’s career, and ultimately fear of the law. These can be heightened by fear of media reaction. If the press also gets into the “who is to blame” mode it can exacerbate all the other factors and has the potential to influence legal processes. It is valid to ask whether the press plays a part in killing safety reporting because, when something goes wrong the press and broadcasting media themselves tend to seek out the individual on which to pin the “blame” tag. But actually it is invidious to blame the media. The test of this assertion is in the clichéd question traditionally applied to art: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Accepted wisdom is that art reflects and occasionally illuminates life. Journalism does the same. Art and the press are the products of a culture, not the creators of it. Change the culture, and journalists will reflect what they see. If they see something is wrong with their society or culture, that is the moment when – like artists – they have the opportunity to illuminate it.

There is no need for a wholesale change in national laws, only in the way the law is used. Individual safety reporting and the resulting data must be seen not to be outside the law, but should respected by the law for the good they do and left alone under the oversight of agencies like Eurocontrol and the national aviation authorities – until evidence shows that a criminal prosecution is genuinely warranted. Denmark’s parliament has embedded just such a system in its national law, and if the Danes can do it so can everyone else. Finally, the European Commission must play a vital role to play in facilitating the process.

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