EU Air Accident Investigations at Crossroads

When 13 major aviation stakeholder groups – including the renowned Flight Safety Foundation – issued their joint Declaration, in late April, their message was clear: EU decision-makers must ensure the independence of accident investigations and protect sensitive safety data. Otherwise, accident investigations will not be able to play their role – learning from past accidents to prevent future ones. Regrettably, the Council of Transport Ministers is unlikely to listen – which would leave aviation safety and Europe’s travelling public as the big losers.

The joint Declaration came just a few days before the European Parliament’s Transport Committee debated the Commission proposal for a new EU Regulation on Accident investigations. The debate showed that the Parliamentarians consider the proposal as a unique opportunity to establish this Regulation as one of the key building blocks of Europe’s aviation safety architecture. A unique opportunity to have independent accident investigations act as key drivers for safety improvements.

The Parliament understands that such safety improvements will only be possible, if the Regulation guarantees that the accident investigation is independent from the judicial authorities and that sensitive safety information from that investigation is adequately protected. Otherwise, aviation safety professionals – including pilots – who are keen to participate in accident investigations would be forced to remain silent, to ensure their testimony is not used against them in subsequent judicial proceedings.

But while Parliament is expected to adopt changes that would allow accident investigators to do their job properly, these changes must not run into a brick wall, when encountering the Council of Ministers. Ministers appear to support changes that would undermine the safety investigation’s independence and lift some crucial protection of sensitive safety data. If maintained, Europe’s Transport Ministers risk producing an empty shell – a Regulation that forced safety professionals to remain silent.

The disclosure of the Cockpit Voice Recorder transcripts from the 2008 Spanair accident, and their subsequent publication in major Spanish newspapers, in May this year, are just a sad reminder of how things can go wrong – and will go wrong – if the Transport Ministers don’t rethink their position.

See our Accident Investigation section