ATC Reps Warn of Safety Fallout from Swiss Court Ruling

 - July 5, 2019, 2:17 PM

A Swiss federal court has confirmed the sentencing for an air traffic controller convicted of “negligent disruption of public transport,” marking the first time a controller in Switzerland has been convicted with legal effect, Swiss ATC provider Skyguide reported on July 4.

The federal criminal court in Bellinzona earlier had sentenced the controller on duty during an April 12, 2013 event involving an Irish Ryanair and Portuguese TAP aircraft that “unintentionally converged” over the Napf region (Lucerne).

According to Skyguide, “the safety nets on the ground and in the air worked as planned, so that the situation could be defused quickly.” The incident did not result in personal injury or property damage, Skyguide added.

While Skyguide said the conviction does not affect the long-term employment of the controller (who instead faces a fine), the ATC provider is concerned about the long-term safety ramifications such convictions can have.

“Skyguide is disappointed with this decision and will now analyze what this means for air navigation services operations in the future,” it said. For Skyguide, such a conviction can harm the efforts to continuously improve through a “Just Culture” safety practice. This approach is crucial because human error can never be ruled out, it added. “Over the past fifty years, this safety culture and the learning processes it entails have made aviation the safest means of transport.”

In the Ryanair/TAP case, the controller and a pilot involved reported the incident, spurring the internal and external investigation. While the first to be upheld with legal effect, the conviction was among a number that Swiss courts have handed down against controllers over the past couple of years for incidents that caused neither damage nor injury.

These findings have resulted in calls from the international community for Switzerland to change its penal code and align with international standards.

“The Swiss justice system is setting new unheard-of standards for the aviation industry,” said the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA) in reaction to the most recent finding. “With this sentence, the Swiss Justice system chose to go against all advice from the aviation industry. It will be interesting to see what the further consequences of such a decision will be, both nationally but also internationally.”

IFATCA added that if controllers must live in fear every time they go to work “it will be difficult to uphold the current efficiency of the aviation system as well as it will be difficult to attract employees.”

“Legal proceedings and convictions do not make aviation safer but endanger the continuous development of high safety standards in Swiss air traffic,” Skyguide added. “The question must therefore be allowed as to whether criminal law is the right means of dealing with an incident in which the security system has functioned as expected and in which no personal injury or damage to property has occurred.”