March 21, 2012 Articles

Criminalizing Aviation: Placing Blame Before Safety

By Judith R. Nemsick and Sarah Gogal Passeri

Criminal investigations and prosecutions of parties involved in major air disasters continue unabated on a global scale. In the past five years alone, criminal proceedings have been commenced to address commercial aviation accidents in Brazil, France, Greece, Indonesia, Spain, and Turkey. The investigations relate to the crash of TAM Airlines Flight 3054 at Sao Paolo Congonhas Airport on July 17, 2007; the Air France Flight 447 accident over the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009; the crash of Helios Airways Flight 522 near Athens on August 15, 2005; the Garuda Indonesia Airways Flight 200 accident at Yogyakarta Airport on March 7, 2007; the Spanair Flight 5022 accident at Madrid Barajas Airport on August 20, 2008; and the Atlasjet Flight 4203 accident near Isparta, Turkey, on November 30, 2007.

While there have been criminal investigations in the aviation industry for decades, the recent proliferation of such investigations is concerning. Indeed, one study indicates that there were only 27 criminal prosecutions stemming from airline or business jet accidents worldwide from 1956 to 1999 (a 43-year period), compared to at least 28 during the period from 2000 to 2009. Andreas Mateou & Sofia Michaelides-Mateou, Flying in the Face of Criminalization 161 (2010). In recent years, criminal authorities have been casting a wider net and pressing charges against not only airlines, manufacturers, and their frontline employees, but also management, engineers, and designers. Air traffic controllers, regulatory officials, and maintenance providers have also been targets of these investigations.

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