In this column we have, several times, argued that air accidents in which unintentional human error is a factor should not lead to the criminal prosecution of the pilot, controller or mechanic involved. Our argument in favour of this "just culture" approach is that criminality involves either intent, gross negligence, or deliberate violation of rules, and that prosecution in the absence of these is not only misguided, it discourages aviation people from reporting incidents which could contain important lessons for the industry.

If a state or an aviation authority is to be persuaded to endorse a just culture system - a sophisticated concept - it must be seen to retain its credibility where it is being operated. Criminal prosecution, when it is justified following an accident in which rules and accepted practices are believed to have been ignored or flouted, is crucial to the credibility of a just culture system. If prosecution does not take place when it should, those who advocate blanket criminal prosecution following all accidents just in case criminality might be involved win the argument.

The USA operates a just culture system but, having completed investigations into an accident involving a Platinum Jet Management business jet in 2005, it has decided that a federal prosecution against five executives and a management pilot employed by the now-defunct company is justified. The prosecutor contends that laws were knowingly broken and procedures ignored by the parties involved. If the court finds this charge to have been justified, justice will have been done.

Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration, which was criticised by the National Transportation Safety Board after this accident for its chaotic rules governing the on-demand charter sector, will walk away scot free.

If rules are badly drawn up and not properly overseen, they are asking to be broken.

Source: Flight International