European Authority Refuses To Protect Whistleblowers

 - October 13, 2010, 11:49 AM

At AEI’s 38th Annual Congress last month in Hamburg one of Europe’s leading regulators refused to support aviation industry whistleblowers. According to Robert Alway, a spokesman for Aircraft Engineers International (AEI) of The Netherlands, while many countries at least give lip service to protecting whistleblowers, Luftfahrt Bundesamt, Germany’s counterpart to the FAA, refused to support them. 

“Unfortunately this sort of attitude is widespread despite the European Commission introducing several directives designed to promote the collection of safety-related data while protecting the reporter. AEI therefore urges all European regulators to revisit these directives and remind themselves of their responsibilities,” he told AIN in an exclusive interview.

It is AEI’s position that experience has shown before an aircraft accident occurs a number of incidents and/or other deficiencies have highlighted the existence of safety hazards. AEI maintains, and most safety agencies worldwide agree, it is therefore in both the public and the aviation industry’s best interests to gather better knowledge of the occurrences. Doing so facilitates analysis and trend monitoring with the aim of preventing the accident before it occurs. AEI is particularly concerned about the situation in Europe where those who report safety violations are often subject to severe consequences. 

“EC Directives 216/2008 and 2003/42 not only require the protecting of the reporter but actually make the reporting of unsafe activities mandatory as it is clearly in the public interest,” Alway said. 

He said AEI is developing information on how to safeguard aircraft maintenance in the future by prioritizing the main areas of risk, highlighting weak regulations and those being ignored by both airlines and regulators. 

“Regulators must place more distance between themselves and the financial concerns of keeping an airline viable. Regulators are there to regulate safety on the public’s behalf, and as such must ensure safety remains paramount. Commercially viable but unsafe airlines are not an acceptable option,” he said. “Pressure on our members to ‘shut up and be quiet’ will no longer be tolerated.” 

Always said AEI is promoting several initiatives, including obtaining legal clarification on regulations that in turn will be explained to the organization’s affiliates through a process of regional meetings. The first such meeting will be held in London next month. 

“This has two purposes: to ensure that engineers are made aware of the exact intent of any given regulation; and to obtain feedback on those areas of high risk that need immediate attention. Once [these areas are] identified, AEI will initiate a process of awareness by publicly announcing the deficiencies [a form of name and shame] while bringing the need for targeted auditing to EASA’s attention. If necessary, AEI will also urge the agency to initiate the process required to amend any regulation failing to meet its intended purpose.” 

Alway said the name-and-shame aspect might sound “a little draconian” but pointed out the same process is already being used in the marine industry. 

“New European rules to be introduced in January provide for an online register ‘to name and shame’ shipping companies that are performing poorly on vital safety inspections; those with strong safety records will be given good public visibility. Unfortunately, the European Commission actually protects wayward airlines and maintenance bases from such naming and shaming actions,” he said. 

“Aviation has dealt admirably with many of the safety problems it faced in the past. Time, effort and money have been made available to deal with safety issues. [The effort has] undoubtedly resulted in significant safety improvements. The challenge now is to ensure that the aviation industry in its quest to remain commercially viable doesn’t lose sight of why those improvements were sought. Unfortunately, the most pressing challenge of all is to prevent industry from removing or undoing what we already have in place. Safety is all too often taking second place to profit.”