EU agrees new rules to shield air crew whistleblowers

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Airline crew members will be shielded from reprisals when they report incidents to air safety authorities, according to new legislation agreed by all EU institutions yesterday (17 December).

The European Parliament's transport committee endorsed a compromise text yesterday (17 December), negotiated with EU member states earlier in December, on new EU rules aimed at strengthening air safety and accident prevention, also known as the regulation on "occurrence reporting".

“The agreement reached between the Parliament and the Council is a true progress for air safety in Europe," said centre-right MEP Christine de Veyrac (European People's Party, France), the rapporteur on the dossier. "The negotiations were difficult but it was essential to ensure that the strengthening of air safety is above any other consideration,” she said.

The inter-institutional compromise tackles both technical issues and what is known as the “Just culture” dimension, “the core objective” of the proposal, which lays more solid ground for protection of employees and crew members who report safety incidents.

The agreement will introduce an appeal mechanism for employees who find themselves punished in some way for reporting an incident related to air safety as well as penal protection for the whistleblower in all 28 EU member states.

The regulation also foresees a mandatory closed list of examples of incidents that must be reported if they occur, while safeguarding the possibility for a voluntary based mechanism of reporting incidents not included in the list. In both cases, the reported problems will have to be relayed to the competent national authorities, the airline company, the manufacturer of the plane or the European Air Safety Authority (EASA) depending on the nature of the problem.

More importantly, the text will make it possible for whistleblowers in countries where legal protection is lower or people who are employed in small airlines where fear of self-incrimination tends to be greater, to directly notify the problems to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) if they are afraid of repercussions at home.

As an example, in France there are 42,000 reported incidents per year, while in Slovenia the number drops to two a year, a difference which is “obviously due to fear of repercussions and self-incrimination.” (see positions for a reaction of the Slovenian Civil Aviation Authority to these claims)

The rapporteur hailed the outcome of the negotiation, saying that “the person that reports an incident to safety authorities only to strengthen air security will no longer have to fear that their reporting can be sanctioned by the hierarchy or the justice.”

Better exchange of information

The other novelty concerns the exchange of information between member states.

So far, if a company faced a problem in the airspace of a foreign country, the host country was not informed about the details of the incident. Under the new rules, member states will be obliged to notify each other about all the details surrounding the problem (the  nature of the incident, plane type, etc.). However, all elements that could lead to the identification of the company facing the incident will be protected (time, flight origin, company name, etc).

The proposal of the European Commission for a regulation on occurrence reporting was presented a year ago. EU transport ministers had initially watered the text down, notably the confidential “just culture” environment provisions.

However, during subsequent trilateral talks between the European Commission, Council and Parliament, MEPs succeeded in imposing their views, notably due to the “weakness of the Lithuanian presidency”, a Parliament source told EurActiv.

“The Lithuanian presidency didn’t deliver anything on transport policy, this is the only agreement they reached, all the rest is left to the Greeks. So the Parliament took advantage of the presidency’s weakness in the negotiations, we managed to get a quick agreement and to impose everything we wanted,” the source explained.

The three institutions started negotiations on the occurrence reporting regulation on 30 September and concluded them on 25 November this year.

Positions: 

In a written e-mail to EurActiv the Slovenian Civil Aviation Agency has strongly reacted to the quote published in this article regarding the number of reported incidents in Slovenia, claiming that:

"The information is not true! In the year 2013 for example we noticed 713 reports. We have to say that all the subjects who are required to report under the directive are reporting."

European pilots and air traffic controllers welcome the agreement reached by EU institutions over the new Occurrence Reporting Regulation.

“As safety professionals we know that a genuine, far-reaching Just Culture environment, based on trust, is a key ingredient for improving aviation safety. This regulation sets the scene for a pro-active approach to prevent air accidents and loss of life in Europe,” said Nico Voorbach, the President of the European Cockpit Association.

“We welcome the deal struck by the European Parliament and the Member States on this important piece of legislation. This regulation will provide the tools for controllers and pilots to report – in line with our professional commitment to safety – honest mistakes or mishaps in an open, “no-blame” environment. It is now crucial to work together and put these new rules into practice at the national and organisational levels,” said Alexis Brathwaite, the president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controlers’ Association (IFATA).

Timeline: 
  • 3-6 Feb. 2014: Vote in Plenary Session of the European Parliament
  • 2015: Entry into force of the regulation on occurrence reporting in all 28 EU member states
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