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MEMO/10/73

Brussels, 10 March 2010

Air safety: New EU rules to strengthen air accident investigations

New EU rules to strengthen the effectiveness of air accident investigations across Europe will be presented, for the first time, by Siim Kallas, Vice-President responsible for transport, to EU transport ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday (11 March). Strong political support from ministers could pave the way for the adoption of the new rules this year – the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on the proposals in July. Aviation is one of the safest modes of transport in the EU; however accidents do happen. The number of fatal accidents for 2008, for example, involving aircraft registered in EU/EFTA Member States and performing commercial air transport operations was three. Annual figures are overshadowed by the sheer scale of tragic accidents such the Air France accident ( June 2009) or the Spanair accident (August 2008). Drawing on the experience gained over 15 years since the main EU rules covering aviation investigations came into force, the European Commission brought forward in October 2009 proposals to update the current legal framework. The main aim is to: strengthen the implementation of safety recommendations, build investigation capacity in Member States; clarify the roles of different institutions involved in investigations and strengthen the rights of victims and families. The Commission is also aiming at making better use of information on aviation occurrences which is a key to accident prevention.

What is the current situation?

The main EU rules on air accident investigations were established in 1994, under Directive 94/56/EC establishing the fundamental principles governing the investigation of civil aviation accidents and incidents .

This directive established:

  • An obligation to investigate: Member States are obliged to ensure that every accident or serious incident in civil aviation, irrespective of the size of the aircraft or type of operation is subject to an investigation. The directive also established indicative lists of what constitutes a serious incident.

  • The investigation must be carried out by an independent permanent civil aviation body or entity. Member States were required to ensure the establishment of such bodies.

  • The directive provided a number of rights for investigators to enable them to carry out their duties e.g. access to the accident site, and to flight recorders, access to the results of examinations, possibility to examine witnesses etc.

  • Basic principles concerning the publication of reports and dissemination of safety recommendations.

  • The directive established that the sole purpose of the investigation is to prevent future accidents and incidents, and not to apportion blame or liability i.e these independent safety investigations should be separate from judicial inquiries.

The 1994 directive was later complemented by Directive 2003/42/EC which established an EU civil aviation occurrence reporting system – where aviation professionals are required to report occurrences in their daily operational work – so that safety lessons can be learnt.

Current facts and figures on aviation safety

Aviation is one of the safest modes of transport in the EU. However accidents do happen. There have in recent years been tragic accidents which are a warning that there is no room for complacency when it comes to safety.

According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) annual safety review for the year 2008, the number of fatal accidents involving aircraft registered in the EU/EFTA Member States and performing commercial air transport operations remained at the level of 2007 (three). This number is one of the lowest in the decade and well below the average of six fatal accidents per year.

In 2008, only 5.5 % of all fatal accidents in commercial air transport worldwide occurred with airplanes registered in an EASA Member State. This low number of accidents is overshadowed by the scale of tragic accidents such as that involving the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft in Spain where 154 people suffered fatal injuries.

Regarding aircraft registered in the rest of the world, the number of fatal accidents in the same type of operation decreased from 53 in the year 2007 to 51 accidents in 2008. The number is within the decade’s average (53 accidents).

What is the problem? Why do the current rules on investigations need updating?

It is now more than 15 years since the basic EU rules on air accident investigations were put in place. Since that time the EU has enlarged to 27 Members, while at the same time aircraft and their systems are becoming increasingly complex – so investigations can require a more diverse range and sometimes very specialised expertise, compared to even a decade ago.

Drawing on the experience gained from investigations into accidents and incidents for over a decade, it is clear there are several specific areas which need to be addressed.

  • There is a substantial divergence in investigating capacity between Member States. It is worth noting that an air investigation will often involve several national investigating authorities working together. The country where the accident took place will be the lead accident investigating authority, but other national authorities (for example due to specific safety interests such as being a home country to aircraft manufacturer) will also collaborate. It is important for all national authorities to have the capacity to play their role.

  • The roles of the different authorities involved in the investigation have to be better clarified In particular, EASA, the European Aviation Safety Authority, is since 2002 responsible for certifying aircraft in the EU and its access to relevant factual information is necessary to take timely safety actions – for example to recall aircraft from the market or require parts to be replaced. In order to avoid any potential conflict of interest, the boundaries of EASA as a certifying authority and as a part of the investigation must be clear.

  • There have been questions related to the separation of safety investigations and other proceedings, such as parallel judicial investigations. The sole objective of technical investigations should be the prevention of future accidents and not to attribute blame or liability.

  • It is important to strengthen the implementation of safety recommendations. After every investigation, the national authority draws up safety recommendations which are sent to relevant air safety bodies and aviation companies for a follow-up.

  • There have been in a number of cases delays in obtaining reliable information about the identity of the persons on board an aircraft subject to an accident. Similarly, victims of air accidents and their families should be provided with adequate support and information about the progress of the investigation.

What are the new proposals?

The proposal for a regulation on investigation and prevention of accidents and incidents in civil aviation focuses on four priority areas:

1. New obligations to strengthen the implementation of safety recommendations. The proposed regulation will, for the first time, oblige Member State authorities to ensure that every recommendation resulting from an investigation is assessed within a fixed deadline (90 days) and acted upon if justified. A permanent European database of safety recommendations will be also established.

2. Building investigation capacity/resources. To build capacity and efficient co-operation between national investigating authorities the regulation establishes a European network of civil aviation safety investigation authorities. National authorities will still be responsible for air accident investigations, but the network will provide training, strengthen cooperation through joint projects and provide certain shared investigation resources which will significantly strengthening the overall investigating capacity of Europe.

3. Strengthening the rights of victims of air accidents. The new proposal will require the rapid availability of reliable lists of all persons on board an aircraft involved in an accident. The Commission proposes that air companies make such complete lists available within one hour from the occurrence of an accident. In addition it is proposed, for the first time, a legal EU-wide obligation requiring the provision of rapid and organised assistance in the case of an accident. It would be for Member States to decide which authority will provide this assistance. In particular, victims and their families should be guaranteed the right to reliable information about the progress of an ongoing investigation.

4. Removing institutional uncertainty. The proposed regulation will clarify the role of the European Aviation Safety Authority in accident investigations. It provides that the agency, as an authority responsible for certification of aircraft in Europe, will have timely access to relevant factual information from accident investigation in order to take necessary safety actions if required. At the same time safeguards are put in place to limit the direct involvement of EASA in an investigation to avoid potential conflict of interest. The regulation will also clearly separate the technical investigations from other proceedings and ensure that safety investigators have efficient access to relevant evidence material and information, which will be afforded special protection.

5. Reacting to safety problems before accidents happen. Operational experience shows that often before an accident happens a number of smaller events may indicate the existence of more serious safety risks. It is absolutely essential to analyse these occurrences in a timely manner in order to prevent them from escalating into accidents. Member States and EU must make better use of that information, significant volume of which is already stored in various databases. The Commission proposes that EASA and Member States systematically conduct an analysis of such information, and that all the safety authorities in the EU have broader access to this important data.

What happens next?

The 27 Ministers will discuss the proposal at the Transport Council on 11 March. If there is a strong political support of the proposals, the European Parliament could carry out a first reading over the summer, with the possibility of agreement on the new regulation in 2010.

Background:

One of the main priorities of the European Commission's transport policy is to increase the already very high level of aviation safety. There can be no compromises on safety.

Over the past few years, the European Union has built up a strong safety policy. Among the key achievements are: common safety rules for all European operators; establishment of the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) in 2002, responsible for the certification of aircraft; a common list of dangerous airlines whose operations are banned partially or totally from the European sky. The Commission works actively with international organisations, notably the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to improve safety at worldwide level.

Further information:

Press release IP/09/1612 : "Flying safer: Commission proposes new rules for better investigation of civil aviation accidents", 29 October 2009.

http://ec.europa.eu/transport/air/safety/accident_investigation_en.htm

The EASA 2008 annual safety report is available at

http://easa.europa.eu/ws_prod/g/g_sir_review.php


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