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. In the second article we are asking: Is the Justice System Ready to adapt to a more connected and interrelated world?
Is the Justice System Ready to adapt to a more connected and interrelated world?
On 12 April 2013, two aircraft, a Ryanair and a TAP Air Portugal, unintentionally converged in the complex airspace over the Napf region (Lucerne, Switzerland). The safety nets on the ground and in the air worked as planned, so that the situation could be defused quickly. There was no personal injury or damage to property. In may 2018, the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona sentenced the air traffic controller on duty to a heavy fine for negligent disruption of public transport. The Federal Court has now confirmed this ruling. This is the first time in Switzerland that an air traffic controller has been convicted with legal effect.
The aviation industry has always been an industry where collaboration and connectivity has been at the forefront to achieve improvements. Especially safety and efficiency has been at the centre of attention. Improvements have been achieved through enhanced equipment, standards and rules, interdependence between many stakeholders, implementation of safety nets and collaboration between operators at the sharp end. In short it is fair to say that the Aviation Industry relies on teamwork to make it possible for the flying public to move from A to B.
Sidney Dekker (author of several books and articles about Just Culture) put it this way, ‘It takes teamwork to succeed as well as it takes teamwork to fail’. If this is true, then we have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense to convict and fine individuals for trying to do their everyday job? Of course, this doesn’t include cases where operators at the “sharp end” are guilty of wilful misconduct in any form. Such cases amount to acts of sabotage, gross negligence or substance abuse etcetera. But for all other cases where individuals, who happen to be the person executing and implementing the work of the team, it is time to think differently.
The justice system in Switzerland responded to an incident with the conviction of an individual. That might be the right thing to do according to the world of justice and courts. But if that is the case, Switzerland and maybe other countries, has a problem in a world with teamwork and connectivity and how they handle incidents and accidents. It is time to change the Justice System to adapt to a more and more connected and dependent world.
This verdict has implications for the everyday handling of air traffic in Switzerland and maybe Europe-wide. It has already led to a reduction in airspace capacity in and around Switzerland and depending on the on-going cases, (there are two more pending at the courts in Switzerland) it might have permanent consequences for the air traffic.
Fortunately, there are possible solutions to the problem. We suggest that justice systems start to look for systems problems instead of holding individuals responsible for systems mishaps and failures. Justice systems in Germany as well as in the Unites States are using corporate responsibility in cases where a system has affected society negatively.