Aviation Safety and Air Accident Investigations

Aviation Safety

Civil aviation is strictly regulated to facilitate the highest levels of safety. The International Civil Aviation Organisation ("ICAO"), a United Nations body, sets basic international regulations. The aviation authorities then implement and enforce these regulations in their own countries and may also add to them to further raise safety levels.

Within Europe, the  European Aviation Safety Agency ("EASA") sets most of the safety regulations. This provides a common set of requirements across Europe on areas including pilot licensing and aircraft type approvals. For individual EU countries, national regulators then use those requirements to regulate civil aviation in their country. In the UK, this is done by the UK Civil Aviation Authority

Within any one country, for different types of flight there are different levels of safety oversight and risk - from commercial airlines to a flight in a small single engine private aircraft. Understandably, commercial airline operations have the highest levels of safety requirements and oversight, requiring the airlines and pilots to hold the highest levels of professional licences and approvals. For UK airliner operations, statistically there is an average of only one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried by UK operators. This impressive safety record is put in perspective when compared with the chances of being killed in a road accident (one in 17,000) or the chances of being struck by lightning (one in 19 million). 

Pilot licences can either be for professional flying or for general aviation. If a pilot has a professional licence, he or she can be paid for flying and can fly in commercial operations (such as an airliner). General aviation licences are only for recreational flying and pilots with these licences are not qualified or allowed to be paid for any type of flight (apart from some flight instructor work). 

In Europe and the UK, the general aviation licenses are the light aircraft pilot licence ("LAPL"), private pilot licence ("PPL"), sailplane pilot licence ("SPL") and balloon pilot licence ("BPL"). The professional licences are the commercial pilot licence ("CPL") and air transport pilot licence ("ATPL").

Military pilots are separate from this as they are trained by the military with a different syllabus to civilian pilots, due to the specialist skills required to operate military aircraft. On leaving the military, their professional military pilot experience is used as the basis for them obtaining the professional ATPL civilian licence.

While there are different risk levels for different categories of flight within a country, the quality of aviation regulation/ flight safety can vary between different countries. For instance, many developed countries have very sophisticated aviation regulators and correspondingly good flight safety statistics, whereas there are a number of other countries that do not have the same high levels of aviation regulation and suffer from a poorer flight safety record. A recent example of a country where this has been highlighted is Nepal. Following a string of fatal air accidents involving Nepalese carriers, including the Sita Air crash in 2012 and following an analysis by EASA of Nepal's aviation safety oversight systems, the European Transport Commission banned all Nepalese Airlines from operating in EU and UK airspace.

Resources for checking the safety of Airlines

The European Commission publishes a list of banned airlines ("the Blacklist") which is useful for consumers who want to check whether a commercial operator has been found to not have sufficient safety to be allowed to fly in EU and UK airspace - the following is a link to the EU Blacklist.

In addition, following the Inquest into the Sita Air tragedy in England in April 2014, the Association of British Travel Agents (“ABTA”) amended its code of conduct to require its members to notify customers in advance if their package holiday includes a flight by an airline that is on the EU Blacklist (click here to read the Sita Air case).

A further resource for consumers that provides information on international flight safety and data on the safety record of civil aviation in individual countries is the Flight Safety Foundation.

Also, each country's air accident investigation authority should have a website containing data on historic and current air accident investigations, along with copies of air accident reports that have been published.

Air Accident Investigations

Following an air accident, there is an investigation by the government that has jurisdiction over the area where the aircraft has crashed. In the UK, air accidents are investigated by the Air Accidents Investigations Branch ("AAIB"). In the US, the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") is responsible for investigating air accidents.

Each Air Accident Investigation Authority investigates accidents or incidents occurring within their country or dependant territory. Where the accident location is not in the territory of any country (for example in international waters), it is the country where the aircraft is registered that should perform the investigation. Countries may also investigate accidents on behalf of another country if, after mutual agreement, the investigation is delegated to them.

Air accident investigations are conducted in accordance with the international standards and recommended practices as described in ICAO Annex 13 - Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation. The objective of the investigation is to identify the circumstances and causes of the accident so that lessons can be learned to prevent aviation accidents and improve flight safety.  It is not the purpose of the air accident investigation to apportion blame or liability.

For EU Member States and the UK, Regulation (EU) No 996/2010 sets out the legal requirements on the investigation and prevention of accidents and incidents in civil aviation.

Regulation (EU) No 996/2010 also requires States to take account of ICAO Annex 13. In addition, States may have further national legislation to complement Regulation (EU) No 996/2010.

Victims and relatives of those affected by aircraft accidents are not allowed to be participants in the accident investigation. With no access to the accident investigation, prior to the publication of the Final Accident report they are reliant on publication of preliminary interim reports and/ or briefings from the accident investigators to obtain information on the accident investigation progress. 

During the air accident investigation, the investigators will work with a number of entities, such as the aircraft manufacturer and aircraft operator, to assist them with the investigation. These entities provide assistance such as specialist expertise, technical information and technical analysis of the wreckage components. Involvement in the investigation of other entities, who may also be defendants in the separate legal action, can be perceived by victims and the public as a conflict of interest in what is supposed to be an independent safety investigation.

The purpose of working with other participants is to ensure the best possible evidence is gathered with the best technical expertise so that the investigation can have maximum impact on the prevention of future accidents. To avoid any conflict of interest, their participation in the investigation is under the control of the Investigator In Charge ("IIC"). The IIC is appointed by the country conducting the investigation and he or she must ensure that there is no interference or conflict of interest that prejudices the independence of the investigation.

Once the investigation is complete, a final report should be published. The final report should consist of factual information about the accident, an analysis, conclusions (probable cause) and safety recommendations. Under ICAO Annex 13, the final report should be published as soon as possible or within 12 months. However, due to the nature and complexity of air accidents, it can often be over 12 months or sometimes several years before a final report is published. In these circumstances, ICAO Annex 13 provides that an interim report should be published on each anniversary of the air accident.  In addition to this 12 month recommendation, in a number of countries, including the UK, it is common for the authorities to publish preliminary reports/ special bulletins on a periodic basis that is shorter than 12 months. 

Although the aim of the air accident investigation is to identify the full chain of events and cause(s) of the accident to prevent similar accidents in the future, there are a number of circumstances that can hamper the investigators ability to do this. Factors include the resources and sophistication of a country's air accident authority, location/ condition of the wreckage, damage to the for Flight Data Recorder ("FDR") / Cockpit Voice Recorder ("CVR") data or where the crash involves an aircraft that is not fitted with a FDR or CVR.

This means that the Final Accident Report may be inconclusive or of limited value. For the families and victims, this can make the process of finding answers and pursuing a legal case very difficult. In these circumstances, the Ashfords Aviation Team uses its in-house professional pilot expertise to independently investigate the causes of the air accident to identify credible theories as to the most likely causes. This is used to help the families and victims understand what went wrong and identify the best litigation strategy to hold those responsible to account. The following cases provide some examples of this expertise:

Specialisms