Air Transport World

Aviation on trial: turning accidents into crimes may make good headlines, but it has the potential to cripple the industry's ability to learn from incidents and accidents and prevent them from recurring. (Safety).(Industry Overview)

`Those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it."-George Santayana, American philosopher. "Hopefully, this chilling reality of criminal charges--murder and manslaughter charges--will send a very c ear message to the aviation industry that will save lives in the future."--Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, Dade County state attorney, when announcing a 220-count indictment against SabreTech over the 1996 ValuJet crash.

The vexing question facing the airline industry, government regulators, criminal prosecutors, politicians, lawyers and, most importantly, the traveling public is which of these two starkly contrasting views will prevail.

The lesson from aviation history is quite clear: Only with thorough and open investigation of air disasters can the industry hope to gain an understanding of how to prevent them in the future. But it also is clear that such investigations cannot take place if accident participants fear they soon may find themselves in the criminal dock facing down an angry courtroom, their candid assessments of their own performance now used to send them to jail. "The need to obtain the testimony of those individuals involved in an accident--even if it may disclose errors which are self-incriminating--so that the cause of the accident can be determined far outweighs any benefit that could be derived from a criminal prosecution," warns Paul McCarthy, VP-technical standards at the International Federation of Airline Pilots Assns.

Because about 85% of aircraft accidents have as a major causal factor human error, with the majority being errors by pilots, the likelihood of finding human beings to prosecute is strong. But the threat of criminal prosecution jeopardizes not only the investigation into the accident but also the current trend to analyze all flight data to enhance safety through prevention.

Thankfully, owing to the fact that airline accidents are themselves remarkably rare, situations in which criminal prosecutions arise are even rarer. Nevertheless, there is concern that the phenomenon is on the increase and is occurring in situations in which no thought was given heretofore to the idea of bringing criminal charges.

One of the most disturbing examples occurred less than two years ago. Following a near-collision involving two Japan Airlines widebodies in January 2001, local police actually decided that the cockpit of a 747 was a potential crime scene. …

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