IFATCA will be publishing several short articles on our website in the coming days. The articles will be asking important questions about the current status of Just culture triggered by the conviction of an Air Traffic Controller in Switzerland. It is the purpose to trigger thoughts and ideas for how to proceed.
To describe one of the operational dilemmas that convicting individuals for being involved in incidents, we would like to tell a story that could happen to any of us:
Following the Swiss Federal Court verdict of an air traffic controller for an incident where nobody was hurt and no material damage was done, a conflict materialized between the duty of the judiciary and the needs of a safety-relevant reporting system in complex systems. Through this, aviation is subjected to a stress test.
You are driving your car on a small road in the countryside you are not familiar with. You find yourself suddenly driving 70 km/h by some houses with small children playing on the sidewalk. You suddenly realise you are in a village, but you missed the road sign. Looking back, you see it is there but the sign was mostly hidden by branches from a tree that outgrow towards the street.
You are a responsible driver and want to prevent somebody else falling in the same trap and possibly hitting a child, so you drive to the local authorities (a police station) and report your experience, arguing, one day someone might hit a kid involuntarily. The mayor is grateful and will trim the tree, the parents of the local kids probably agree, but the police officer says: you were driving 70 in a 50 km/h zone? Here you go: a 150 EUR fine!
So, tell me, what are you going to do next time you find yourself in a similar situation? Go to the police again?
Is this the way we want to go in the future of Air Traffic Control?
It looks like today, the common law, which is applicable to every citizen, is also applied to an air traffic controller who reports an incident. If this is the case then should you do the same as most normal citizens do: i.e. not report your own mistakes or violation of laws to the authorities, whether it is your regulator or the police. You should not be incriminating yourself, there are even laws for this (like the USA 5th amendment).
The danger of all this:
Once again, common sense means reporting incidents to prevent they become accidents. Our authorities are implementing Just Culture to protect us from disciplinary actions when dealing with incidents reporting and investigating, but this should also have been extended to the judiciary level. Failure to do so, will be treating us just like normal citizens before the law, but then, following that logic, we should act like most normal citizens too, and this means keeping our mistakes for ourselves.
We need to make the case for a change in the law for professionals, similar to the recent Italian laws for medical doctors; You should not be punished for doing your job according the best practices and for reporting and talking about your honest mistakes while performing your job. But this needs to be done FOR EVERY country that wants to apply Just Culture and a free incident reporting system.
Achieving this is one of IFATCAs top priorities.