International air traffic controllers representatives are decrying recent convictions of air traffic controllers in Switzerland for operational incidents that caused neither damage nor injury, saying such legal actions will not improve safety. The representatives further urged Swiss leaders to adopt international standards surrounding just culture.
On March 28, the Bülach District Court found a Skyguide Swiss air traffic controller guilty of negligent disruption of public transport. The conviction involved an August 22, 2012 incident at Zurich Airport in which a Darwin Airline aircraft took off while a private plane engaged in flight training approached.
That conviction followed convictions in April and December 2018. In those cases air traffic controllers were convicted by the Federal Penal Court and by the Cantonal Court of Zurich, respectively, for operational incidents that, similar to the August 22, 2012 incident, did not result in either personal property or injury damage.
Saying it “regrets” the latest conviction, Skyguide stressed that it stands behind the controller in question. The air navigation services provider further underscored the importance of a just culture, which it said, “is designed to ensure that mistakes that are neither intentional nor grossly negligent are not subject to disciplinary sanctions.” This is important, Skyguide added, because it enables organizations to learn from mistakes and takes measures to avoid future errors. “This leads to greater safety in Swiss airspace for all users,” it said and noted the controller’s employment “is not called into question by the conviction.”
The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) earlier had issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment about air traffic controller convictions. These associations had also stressed the importance of just culture, saying it encourages pilots and controllers to report issues relevant to safety without 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,” IFATCA and ECA said.
Concerning to the organizations, they added, “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 case.”
Noting Switzerland is beholden to a 1942 penal code that binds the court system in these cases, IFATCA and ECA further urged a review of the legal system to better align with the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“Lengthy and costly court cases do not improve aviation safety, nor do they contribute to the robustness of complex systems,” the organizations said. “They create a climate of fear among aviation professionals and result in a reluctance to submit reports. The opportunity to learn from these events is therefore severely compromised.”
In the U.S., the National Air Traffic Controllers Association echoed those sentiments, joining the call for Switzerland to align with international standards that incorporate just culture principles.
“The implementation of a safety culture that continually strives to improve safety within the air traffic control system and the larger aviation industry, with collaborative safety programs, results in a safer system,” NATCA said, adding the results of the programs have been demonstrated “thousands of times” over the past decade in the U.S. through the FAA’s and NATCA’s voluntary, non-punitive reporting program.
That program, Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), has become the largest voluntary reporting program of its kind, NATCA added, noting more than 165,000 reports have filed since it was implemented nationwide in 2010. The organizations further collaborate on safety programs involving government and industry stakeholders to share critical safety information and identify trends.
“A punitive culture leads to withholding of information that, if disclosed, could help make the system safer. It only takes one incident or accident to occur because of a safety issue that was not previously raised or discussed for there to be a tragedy,” NATCA said. “Our hope for Switzerland and the other nations that deviate from these principles and international standards is that they can learn from the positive examples of a safety culture to improve their own systems.”