International pressure is mounting for the process of aircraft accident investigation to be opened up, just as it is increasing on those countries seen to be underperforming in airline safety. It is vital to understand the positive and negative effects of this pressure for transparency, however.

Investigators themselves are not being put under direct pressure to operate more openly. The onus to do so is coming from the expansion of the air transport industry and the gradual globalisation of practices within it. Global media interest in air travel, and particularly in airline accidents, is another powerful force for openness, however perverse its methods may appear to be.

Legal pressure is another factor. The lawsuits announced against Boeing by those who lost relatives or colleagues in the Silk Air 737 accident in December last year are a case in point. Although their primary purpose is to win compensation, they are also an expression of impatience with the slowness and the in camera nature of most air accident investigations. Since the suits cannot be (and should not be) taken out against an investigator whose work is unfinished, a target has to be found. Lawyers will generally go for the easier, or the more lucrative, of the two potential targets: the aircraft manufacturer or the airline. Either way, indirect pressure is still being exerted on the investigator to release information - or, at the very least, accelerate the investigation.

Although law, in practice, works only nationally, its influence crosses borders. A treaty such as the Chicago Convention - the blueprint for international aviation practices - tries to ensure legal uniformity for all aviating nations. But the Convention remains a treaty - not a law.

By convention, the country in which an accident takes place is entrusted with the investigation. Yet, despite the protocol for all accident reports to be filed with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), many never are and the ICAO admits there is little it can do to put pressure on the countries concerned. National sovereignty is ultimately respected, and the information gathered by the investigators may never be surrendered to the ICAO or to public scrutiny.

An accident report, published or unpublished, is only the final document, however. Physical facts about an accident are uncovered day by day and, if the flight data and cockpit voice recorders work, operational facts are established too.

What public status these facts should have, given that their full context may not yet have been established, is open to question. Who has a right to know them, if anyone?

The first answer is that the industry - operators and manufacturers - needs to know the facts, in context or not, as soon as possible to enable precautionary action to be taken. As for interested parties, such as the relatives of the casualties or, indeed, air travellers in general, it is not reasonable, or ethical, to withhold information on the grounds that they are too ignorant to make intelligent use of it .

It can be argued, however, that investigators should not be put under too much pressure by compulsory revelation of the progress (or indeed the stagnant state) of their investigations. If they are, they risk being influenced by public or political opinion, or rushing a judgement. They need to be able to get on with their work without constant harassment. Also, there is almost always a significant human factor in accidents. Human involvement introduces the question "why", which is always more difficult to establish than the simple facts of what happened. The people under investigation have rights too.

The converse argument is that external pressure is a valid discipline. If there is none, the answer is less likely to be found, and certainly it will take longer. The global nature of air transport means air accident investigators serve the international community. That community has a right to established information as it becomes available, and consensus must be sought on formal ICAO guidelines about its release.

Source: Flight International