Crossair execs found not guilty in homicide trial

 - May 29, 2008, 10:57 AM

The Swiss federal court last month acquitted Crossair chairman Moritz Suter, CEO André Dosé and four other former airline employees of homicide by neglect in connection with the crash of an Avro RJ100 during approach to Zurich Airport on Nov. 24, 2001. The trial began on May 5 at Bellinzona in southern Switzerland. The “not guilty” verdict was read May 16, much earlier than expected. When the prosecution closed its case on May 9, it requested suspended jail sentences for all indicted–two years for Suter and Dosé, and between 12 and 18 months for four people employed as middle managers at the time of the accident.

In a report published in early 2004, the Swiss Air Accident Investigation Bureau blamed the accident, which killed 24 of the aircraft’s 33 occupants, on pilot error. According to the prosecutor, the pilot responsible (who died in the crash) had many blemishes on his record and should have been removed from flying duty. He also blamed the management for maintaining a culture of fear, preventing pilots from reporting incidents and encouraging them to take risks rather than choosing safe–but more costly– procedures. Finally, he said that the faulty pilot remained on the roster because Crossair was short of pilots and chose to fly in unsafe conditions rather than canceling flights.

On the opening day, defense lawyers moved to postpone the trial, arguing they needed more time to find additional witnesses, including several pilots. The court rejected the request due to its late timing.

Suter denied all charges and stated that he had no operational responsibility at the time of the accident in his position as chairman of the airline. The prosecutor maintained that the culture of fear instated by him was the main cause of the crash. Dosé and the four other staff members also denied all charges. Dosé insisted that safety was paramount to him. He said he often attended meetings with representatives of government bodies with the goal of improving air traffic safety, and that he had changed several internal rulings to foster safety.

The first week of the trial was devoted to hearings of witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense. An expert witness for the prosecution said that the shortcomings of the pilot involved in the accident were obvious and should have been corrected by additional training. A witness for the defense, a Lufthansa flight instructor, countered that the Crossair pilot had not been involved in any major incident before the crash and that no need for additional training was therefore evident. A former Crossair pilot testified that she had been frightened when flying as a second officer during a risky landing at the difficult airport of Lugano by the crash pilot.

She said she had preferred not to report the incident to her superiors, a choice the prosecution said supports its claim that the airline maintained
a culture of fear.

André Auer, head of the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) at the time of the Crossair crash, said, “Crossair made efforts to adhere to minimal safety rules at the time of the crash,” but added that his office “had noted some deficiencies in fleet maintenance.” Auer also said FOCA had reinforced its supervision of Crossair after a previous crash occurred with a Saab 340 in January 2000 during climb-out from Zurich Airport, and had ordered the airline to tighten its operational safety rules. A former assistant of Auer testified that Crossair had initially resisted the introduction of additional safety measures because of their cost. From his point of view, safety culture assumed a low priority at the airline.