Just Culture efforts in jeopardy after Swiss court decision

Switzerland’s skyguide said it is disappointed with a federal court’s decision to reject an appeal by a Swiss controller over a 2013 incident and will now examine what impact it has on air navigation services operations in the future.

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On 12 April 2013, two aircraft operated by Ryanair and TAP Portugal unintentionally converged in the complex airspace over the Napf region over Lucerne.

skyguide said that in this case, the air traffic controller and one of the pilots involved reported the incident openly and honestly which triggered an internal and external investigation. The provider said it was satisfied that the ATC safety nets activated as designed and helped resolve the situation quickly. “There was no personal injury or damage to property,” added the ANS provider.

In April, 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 which means that the controller’s conviction was upheld.

“Safety is always a top priority for skyguide,” the ANS provider said. “Every effort is made to prevent errors and improve the aviation system. Nevertheless, human error can never be ruled out. Here, modern technological safety nets supported the work of air traffic controllers.”

It said that in order to learn from such mistakes and to continuously improve operations, the ‘just culture’ safety culture that is practised in aviation is crucial. This enables employees to report mistakes without fear of disciplinary consequences, unless they were committed deliberately or through gross negligence. From these voluntary, honest and comprehensive reports, skyguide said it can quickly make improvements and improve operational safety.

“Legal proceedings and convictions do not make aviation safer but endanger the continuous development of high safety standards in Swiss air traffic,” said skyguide. “The question must therefore be posed 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.”

While the continued employment of the air traffic controller is not called into question by this conviction, skyguide said it will adhere to its ‘just culture’ approach in order to ensure safe and efficient air navigation services in Switzerland in the future.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations said that the Swiss justice system had chosen to go against industry best practice.

“The justice system in Switzerland responded to an incident with the conviction of an individual,” IFATCA stated. “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.”

An Open Letter from ATCEUC (Air Traffic Controllers European Unions Coordination) on the future of the Single European Sky, following the recent case of a Swiss air traffic controller