Crash prosecutions 'putting air safety in jeopardy'

The threat of 'overzealous' court action may inhibit industry insiders from reporting faults and mistakes, warn aviation experts

Aviation experts have warned that flight safety is being jeopardised by "overzealous" criminal investigation and prosecution of pilots and other officials after accidents. The warning comes on the eve of a trial in which four airline officials, including two Britons, face manslaughter charges after an airliner crash in Greece which killed 121 people.

Helios Airways Flight ZU 522 from Larnaca to Prague smashed into a hillside near Athens in August 2005. Air crash investigators in Greece concluded the plane crashed after its crew and passengers were rendered unconscious, starved of oxygen by a drop in cabin pressure.

Greek military jets were scrambled to intercept the airliner after it failed to respond to air traffic controllers. The military pilots reported that they could not see anyone flying the plane but could see one pilot slumped over the controls. They later saw a member of the cabin crew holding an oxygen bottle while struggling with the controls. The plane flew on autopilot for nearly two hours before running out of fuel and plunging to earth.

Air crash investigators concluded human error was to blame after a vital switch controlling air cabin pressure was set by engineers to manual instead of automatic. Pre-flight safety checks also failed to spot the error, their report claimed. As a result of the crash, criminal investigations were started separately in Greece and Cyprus, with charges being brought against a number of Helios executives and engineers. The first trial involving four airline officials – former chief executive Andreas Drakos, managing director Demetris Pantazis, operations manager George Kikides and chief pilot Ianko Stoimenov – starts in Cyprus on Thursday. But aviation and legal officials last week described the investigation and prosecution process as a disturbing development. They argue it undermines the confidential reporting system which is credited with helping to establish and maintain the aviation industry's good safety record.

William Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation, warned that flight safety was being compromised by prosecutions. "We are very concerned about increasing attempts by prosecutors to turn accidents into crime scenes and to prosecute aviation professionals based on tragic mistakes, often using information and data provided voluntarily to improve aviation safety. The safety of the travelling public depends on encouraging a climate of openness and co-operation following accidents. Overzealous prosecutions threaten to dry up vital sources of information and jeopardise safety," he said.

London solicitor Sean Gates, who acted for Helios, said: "Confidential reporting is a very effective way of maintaining safety. If people think they may face prosecution because of something they reported, perhaps a mistake they made, it will stop people from confidential reporting. Prosecutions are a huge dissuasive factor."

Mr Gates added that the airline contests the official accident report and has compelling evidence that the conclusions investigators reached were incorrect. The trial is expected to hear evidence that there have been hundreds of air pressurisation incidents reported on similar Boeing 737-300 aircraft.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue