A respected French academic institution has just warned the establishment that the country’s air accident investigation system is “dysfunctional”. Bravo! From within its own ranks, France is being encouraged to face the truth that its system damages the interests of aviation – and air travellers – in one of the world’s truly great original aviating nations.

Let us hope that the establishment hears what one of its sons – the French Air and Space Academy (ANAE) – is saying, because if it does, it will be a beacon for far more countries than France alone. France is just one of hundreds of nations worldwide that has an accident investigation system that contravenes the International Civil Aviation Organisation Chicago Convention’s Annex 13, which sets down the standards and recommended practices for air accident investigations. France is, of course, an ICAO signatory state, but so are the hundreds of others that also have “dysfunctional” systems.

The ANAE is not criticising the national accident investigation agency – the BEA. It is aiming its criticism at the fact that the French government has never seen fit to de-conflict the two separate organisations that are both essential to the full investigation of all aspects of an accident: the technical/administrative investigator (the BEA), whose job it is to ensure that the causes of the accident are understood, and that measures are put in place to ensure it is not repeated; and the judiciary, whose job is to determine who is responsible for an accident and whether there has been any criminal malpractice that led to it.

Both of these functions must be performed, but for reasons explained time and time again on this page, these separate functions must be complementary, not adversarial whereby they chase the same evidence simultaneously for totally different purposes – with the judiciary having first call on anything they deem might conceivably be evidence for the potential prosecution.

Potential is the key word. There may be no need for prosecution. But the fact there has been an accident at all proves there is a definitely a need for improved operational or technical understanding. If both parties chase the same “evidence” at the same time, and the judiciary chooses to remove it from the scene – which they did at the time of the Concorde accident near Paris Charles de Gaulle – they impede each other and in so doing damage the cause of aviation safety.

Meanwhile, is the judiciary, by acting in this unco-ordinated way, serving the citizens of France or, specifically, those who were victims of an air accident? The fact that the final court hearings relating to an accident that happened in January 1992 are only now taking place gives the answer to that question.

France needs a revolution here. Unfortunately, since 1789, its citizens have not been so inclined to challenge the status quo.

Source: Flight International