IFATCA will be publishing several short articles on our website in the coming days. The articles will be asking important questions about the current status of Just Culture triggered by the conviction of an Air Traffic Controller in Switzerland. It is the purpose to trigger thoughts and ideas for how to proceed. In the first article we are asking:
Are we burying Just Culture for good?
On 12 April 2013, two aircraft of the Irish Ryanair and the Portuguese TAP unintentionally converged in the complex airspace over the Napf region (Lucerne, Switzerland). The safety nets on the ground and in the air worked as planned, so that the situation could be defused quickly. There was no personal injury or damage to property. In April 2019, the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona sentenced the air traffic controller on duty to a heavy fine for negligent disruption of public transport. The Federal Court has now confirmed this ruling. This is the first time in Switzerland that an air traffic controller has been convicted with legal effect.
After decades of hard work convincing all parties of the benefits of Just Culture in Aviation and having seen the first safety benefits, a single court decision is setting us back significantly and can endanger the continued incremental improvement of safety.
The judiciary is not necessarily the biggest issue. Judges are applying the law or interpreting the law in a way they believe would protect society, which is their job, by convicting an individual Air Traffic Controller for a system shortcoming. The intent is to ensure the safety of the travelling public.
But are they really protecting the travelling public? IFATCA is a firm believer of the contrary: The conviction of professionals reporting their incidents is in fact endangering the travelling public by discouraging reporting and therefore making air travel less safe.
It is time to reflect about our own role and the role of other key stakeholders.
Did we start at the wrong end? We basically made an error at the start in promoting Just Culture and its safety benefits without having paid enough attention to the fragile arrangements that Just Culture is built upon. We have no protection in place against the current case.
We indeed failed to link the Just Culture implementation to the judiciary from the outset. We were tempted by promises of good intentions and nice wishes but clearly those did not materialise. In fact, the Regulators (both in the EU and at State level) failed to link Just Culture implementation to a change in the laws of the various countries that would protect the professionals, reporting their mistakes, from prosecution.
All is not lost yet. The ball is in the camp of the Swiss State. This should become, as a matter of urgency, the first task of the State: to individually address this issue, and propose/present changes in the National law to decriminalise incidents reported under Just Culture. IFATCA is formally asking for this.
IFATCA fears that, if there is a failure to correct this rapidly, Air Traffic Controller Associations would have no other option at some point than to ask their individual members (the Air Traffic Controllers) to only report a minimum and restrict cooperation with incident investigations, in order not to incriminate themselves and avoid prosecution. This fear of reporting is likely to spread to other professions in aviation and will undermine decades of progress. This must be prevented, urgently, for the safety of the travelling public.