International air accidents are complex and traumatic – so understanding investigation and compensation procedures in order to better assist foreign national victims is vital for consuls
Britain’s Air Accident Investigations Branch (AAIB) handles around 400 air accidents annually – an average of one incident every day, consuls learned at a seminar hosted by repatriation specialists Rowland Brothers International whose talks bring the consular community together to gain a better understanding of consular emergency procedures.
Addressing consuls, Nicholas Dann, Head of International Development at the AAIB, said: “We have one aim: to improve aviation safety. We investigate the causes of air accidents and then put in place measures intended to prevent them from happening again.”
Despite the significant rise in air travel over the past century, the accident rate has fallen significantly due, in part, from the improved safety measures resulting from recommendations of air accident investigators
Investigating air accidents
Administered by the Department for Transport, the AAIB investigates air accidents and serious incidents occurring in the UK, as well as UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. This includes major air accidents involving commercial aircraft, but more often involves light aircraft operating privately. Maintenance errors that could have serious consequences are also investigated.
The exception is terrorist incidents, where the police will lead the investigation. However AAIB investigators may be called on as part of an investigation to recommend additional safety measures.
The AAIB will also participate in an overseas investigation if an accident involves an aircraft registered in Britain, if the operator is British, or if the aircraft or any of the components on the aircraft were designed or manufactured in the UK. AAIB investigators deploy to the site to assist the country in which the accident occurred with the investigation.
It is the police who are responsible for Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), which is a scientific procedure to formally identify a victim using primary identifiers (such as DNA, fingerprints or dental records). This is a sensitive and potentially time-consuming procedure which can be distressing for victims’ families, Dann told consuls.
The wreckage may be taken to the AAIB facility at Farnborough which is also equipped with laboratories to analyse black box recordings. Strict rules apply in on the release of flight recorder transcripts and in the UK a High Court order is required to obtain access to these.
International cooperation post Brexit
The framework for international cooperation in air accident and incident investigations is set out in Annex 13 of the International Convention on Civil Aviation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Dann noted that all signatories to the convention are required to adhere to the guidelines and this will continue to apply post-Brexit.
The country in which the accident occurred will take the lead in an investigation. Consuls were interested to learn that even if the majority of victims in an air accident are from a particular country, this does not automatically guarantee official participation rights in an investigation, although the country’s authorities will have certain rights to information.
There are additional complexities when dealing with air accidents at sea, Dann explained. If an accident occurs in the territorial waters of a country, that country’s authorities are responsible for the recovery of the wreckage. However, if the accident occurs in international waters, it is the responsibility of the country where the aircraft is registered.
Recovery of wreckage at sea is expensive and can cost up to US$250,000 a day. In the case of Air France 447 the wreckage took a long time to locate and the cost of recovery was in the order of $40 million.
Once an investigation has concluded, a report, including safety recommendations, is compiled by the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents. For complex and lengthy investigations the AAIB may publish a Special Bulletin before the investigation is complete. AAIB reports are independent and publicly available online (https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/air-accidents-investigation-branch). Published reports can be accessed by any interested party, including consuls, coroners or those providing legal assistance to the victims’ families.
Dann noted that it is not the role of the AAIB to apportion blame or liability. This is for the courts to decide as the result of separate investigations carried out by other authorities, such as the police.
Liability and compensation
Determining liability and bringing compensation claims can be a lengthy and complex procedure, Sarah Stewart, a partner at Stewarts Law, told consuls. Stewarts Law is the UK’s largest litigation-only law firm and specialises in high-value, complex international disputes including air accidents, which require technical knowledge of aviation and the insurance industry.
Stewarts assists families in making claims for civil compensation and supports them through the highly technical procedures such as the air accident investigation, the coroner’s inquest, compensation process and possible criminal prosecution.
Where the aviation insurers do not admit liability, litigation specialists such as Stewarts will engage experts to conduct an independent investigation on behalf of the families. This is especially important if the inquest, or the official accident investigation is likely to take longer than the limitation period to bring a claim of compensation.
Because of the multiple jurisdictions involved in an air accident, lawyers will also advise families on where to bring a claim as countries differ widely in how they treat compensation claims and the value that is put on a life. For instance, in the US, the average compensation for a 45-year-old wage earner with a partner and one teenage child is US$4.5 million, whereas in the UK it is US$1.75 million.
Stewart explained that legal firms will take on cases on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. Although sometimes public funding (legal aid) can be made available to families for legal representation at the inquest, this is limited and only in cases where there is a wider public interest.
“The seminar was very informative and gave consuls a really good idea of air accident investigations and what legal routes are available to the victims. This will help us to better assist our nationals in future and we are grateful to Rowland Brothers International for organising the seminar,” a spokesperson form the Consular Corps of London said after the event.
For information visit https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/air-accidents-investigation-branch or contact the AAIB to report a serious incident on 01252 512299. Further information can also be gathered from the Embassy Liaison Team at Rowland Brothers International on 020 86842324
The event was held at the Wallace Collection