The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations, IFATCA, and the European Cockpit Association, ECA, are extremely disappointed to learn of the conviction of two Air Traffic Controllers in Switzerland. In April and December 2018, two air traffic controllers were convicted by the Federal Penal Court and by the Cantonal Court of Zurich respectively for operational incidents. No one was injured in either event, nor was there any damage sustained to any of the involved aircraft or to ground infrastructure. This reaction does nothing to improve aviation safety.
Aviation is the safest mode of transport, and accidents are extremely rare. This is thanks to the continuous effort to learn from incidents where the stringent aviation standards may not have been met. A ‘Just Culture’ is one where aviation professionals, including pilots and air traffic controllers, are encouraged to report issues relevant to safety without undue fear of punishment. This makes the aviation system safer. Despite drastic increases in traffic, safety levels have continued to improve to the level the flying public enjoys today.
Switzerland remains one of the few States that has chosen to deviate from international standards and recommendations - including those in the Annexes to the Convention on International Civil Aviation - when it comes to using safety reports to trigger court cases. The Swiss judicial system is limited by the 1942 penal code which binds the courts to perform in a manner that is not benefical to aviation safety. An urgent review is needed in line with Resolutions 38-3 and 38-4 of the General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the aviation specialised body of the United Nations.
Aviation, and in particular air traffic control, is a complex industry where the front-end operator is working as an integral part of the system, interacting in teams with systems and procedures. These complex systems are extremely resilient and do not fail only because of one element of the system, it is the system that fails, not the individual.
Lengthy and costly court cases do not improve aviation safety, nor do they contribute to the robustness of complex systems. They create a climate of fear amongst aviation professionals and result in a reluctance to submit reports. The opportunity to learn from these events is therefore severely compromised. Just Culture is not a carte blanche for aviation professionals, including air traffic controllers. It is an essential cornerstone that allows aviation professionals to actively engage in the process of improving safety.
IFATCA & ECA urgently call upon Switzerland to align with other States and International standards, to incorporate the principles of Just Culture into their legal system in order to provide for a balanced approach between safety and the administration of justice.