CRIMINALIZATION OF AVIATION WORK HURTS AVIATION SAFETY

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COMMENT: Aviation Safety Suffers Further Setback Following Helios Conviction

An Athens court has found a Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer to be criminally liable for not resetting a cockpit switch on a Helios Airways B-737. For this failure the AME was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The airplane crashed when the oxygen system failed and all aboard died.

This is a particularly egregious case in that there was neither proof that the AME left the switch in the wrong position nor that that such an error was the cause of the oxygen failure. The attached article details the injustice of this particular case.

Even assuming that the facts are not as absurd as here, imposing criminal sanctions in almost all such aviation cases is not a wise policy.

First, if prosecutors and criminal investigators arrive at a scene of a crash, the safety investigators role takes a back seat. The search for why the plane crashed becomes an examination of who should be blamed. If Miranda like warnings are given, the people most familiar with the facts of the case will no longer cooperate with anyone. Accidents are by definition tragic events, but through such casualties aviation safety can learn. The sooner that a probable cause is determined, the sooner remedial action can be taken. The general populace benefits from such unfortunate calamities.

Second, aviation has in place its own sanction systems that constantly reinforce responsible behavior. One theory of criminal law is to deter inappropriate actions. The civil aviation system has designed on-going surveillance and its own penalties for failures to meet its exacting standards. The imposition of criminal penalties is at best a redundant retribution.

Neither necessary nor good policy.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s statute expressly

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