A new doctoral study into criminal prosecutions of pilots or air traffic controllers following aircraft accidents and incidents has concluded that while they have a definite detrimental effect on flight safety, they fail to have the intended effect of deterring individuals from making mistakes.

In fact, the study found, controllers are particularly aware that successful prosecution could follow an unintentional error, and the resulting stress may even make mistakes more likely.

The study was carried out by two Cypriots, Sofia Michaelides-Mateou, a professor of law at the University of Nicosia, and a Cyprus Airways Airbus A320 captain Andreas Mateou, and was presented at the Flight Safety Foundation's European Aviation Safety Seminar in Nicosia on 18 March.

A criminal prosecution of individuals associated with the now-defunct Cypriot carrier Helios Airways as a result of the August 2005 fatal crash of one of its Boeing 737s is about to begin in the Cyprus courts in the next two weeks.

The Cyprus court case is coincidental to the study, because the study's purpose was to determine, generically, the positive or negative effects on flight safety of proceeding with criminal prosecutions against those involved in aviation accidents.

All those on board the Helios aircraft died, so the pilots cannot be prosecuted, but other Helios employees and contractors, including engineers, have been charged to appear before the Cyprus courts, and may yet be called to appear also before courts in Greece, where the crash occurred at the end of a flight from Larnaca.

In addition to examining former aviation accident criminal prosecutions and their judicial outcomes, the doctoral study carried out a survey of pilots and controllers to find out their perception of whether the threat of prosecution in the event of an accident had a positive effect on aviation safety, and they were almost unanimous in their opinion that it was detrimental.

There was a very small minority, says Michaelides-Mateou, that believed the threat of prosecution was an incentive not to make an error. One of the effects of the threat - or the actuality - of prosecution, the study found, is that although pilots and controllers instinctively want to provide information that will reduce the risk of an error or mishap in future, they withhold it because their own testimony may incriminate them - and their lawyers certainly advise them to take up their right to silence.

Mateou points out that, increasingly in cases all over the world, data from the technical investigation, and from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, is being used in its raw form as evidence in trials without the need to test its validity in law. This contravenes Annex 13 to the Chicago Convention, but it is happening, he points out. The result of this "intermingling" of raw data with legal evidence leads to pilots and controllers being advised to maintain their right to silence even in front of the technical accident investigators, explains Michaelides-Mateou.

The FSF, Eurocontrol and the European Regions Airline Association, which are joint partners in staging the safety seminar at which the doctoral study was presented, have for many years publicly expressed their concern about the detrimental effect that the threat of the criminal prosecution of unintentional human error has on the voluntary reporting of incidents.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news