French investigative board blasts flags of convenience

 - October 18, 2006, 6:12 AM

The chief of the NTSB’s French counterpart is concerned that an increasing number of aircraft are flying under flags of convenience. Talking to members of the French association of aerospace journalists recently, Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of the Paris Le Bourget-based Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), condemned the fact that some “rogue businessmen” are skirting French rules by registering their aircraft in countries where safety supervision is substandard and safety rules go virtually unenforced.

According to Arslanian, supply and demand have been meeting for a few years. “Rationalization and cost reduction at most airlines have led to a lack of flexibility; no spare aircraft is available when the entire fleet is flying,” he said. The result is an increased demand for aircraft charter, which could have meant business as usual, Arslanian added.

But in some areas of the world, for any number of reasons, safety rules are not applied as stringently as they are in others. The BEA chief explained that “some people have found that they could earn money with that; they thus started to export safety problems.”

Although he did not suggest any solution, he rejected a protectionist reaction in which wealthy countries would build barriers around themselves. Citizens of these countries, when traveling, he noted, would still have a chance to fly with risky operators. “In addition, we cannot just forsake poor countries,” he stated.

Arslanian dismissed a recent article asserting that technical investigations in some countries, including France, are not conducted according to ICAO standards, especially because the judiciary probe impedes the technical one. In addition, the final report on the 2000 Concorde crash in Gonesse included official comments by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), the BEA’s UK counterpart, noting that the judiciary had created significant obstacles to its investigation, such as preventing the AAIB from examining parts of the doomed aircraft.

“Both the judiciary and the technical processes are of public interest,” Arslanian said, conceding that it is not easy to balance the two. According to Arslanian, the French model is a good one, as it has a response to every situation. He also stated that French investigations are conducted as requested by ICAO’s Annex 13.

The European Regions Airline Association recently asserted to AIN that criminal investigations are interfering with accident investigations. The association said that countries such as France (which has a Napoleonic legal code rather than the Anglo-Saxon common law model) are creating particularly serious problems.

Earlier this year European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) officials told AIN they intend to establish common procedures for accident investigation in Europe. Asked whether this plan is feasible considering the differences in the legal structures, Arslanian told AIN, “All member states apply the same rules, according to ICAO requirements, so the EASA’s wish is already fulfilled.” However, he conceded that “differences in style” can still exist. He added that European investigative entities have met regularly since 1991 with the goal of–among other things–furthering method harmonization. He also pointed out that the EASA is not responsible for investigations.

Asked whether the BEA follows up after making its recommendations, Arslanian told AIN, “According to a French decree, the entities [such as the EASA] targeted by a recommendation have 90 days to answer.” He explained that there is no “judgment” by the BEA on an entity that will not implement a recommendation. Nevertheless, he revealed that the BEA is considering making those answers public.

The BEA has been involved in several investigations after a series of crashes last summer. For example, it is assisting in Italy’s investigation of the Tuninter ATR 72 ditching because the ATR regional aircraft are built in France. It also sent representatives to the West Caribbean MD-82 crash scene near Maracaibo, Venezuela, where 152 of the 160 fatalities were French citizens. Arslanian emphasized that when the BEA participates in investigations led by developing countries one of its goals is to help them conduct more exhaustive investigations and improve safety.

The French government is progressively increasing the Bureau’s resources. In addition to investing in new equipment ($1.4 million last year), it had a workforce growth of 8 percent per year. The BEA currently employs 120 people.