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.

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