07 Jan Unlawful Interference


“More than 900 airline passengers ‘murdered’ in past two years” was the headline in a recent article in the UK newspaper: “The Independent”. The article was based on a set of aviation safety statistics for 2015 prepared by To70. ‘Murder’ is not a phrase we would have chosen to describe the deaths of passengers and crew members in accidents that are the result of what the aviation industry calls ‘unlawful interference’. “Murder” is a term both unfamiliar and uncomfortable to those working in aviation safety. As we explained in our infographic on aviation safety, many reports exclude ‘unlawful interference’ related accidents from their analysis. At the end of the year this lead to various positive articles describing 2015 as the safest year in aviation since 1946 (see for instance “NRC Handelsblad”). While this is true as far as the number of accidents is concerned, it cannot be said for the total number of casualties on-board aeroplanes.

What is ‘unlawful interference’

According to ICAO Annex 17, a set of international security requirements, ‘unlawful interference’ is defined as “… acts or attempted acts such as to jeopardize the safety of civil aviation, including but not limited to:

  • unlawful seizure of aircraft,
  • destruction of an aircraft in service,
  • hostage-taking on board aircraft or on aerodromes,
  • forcible intrusion on board an aircraft, at an airport or on the premises of an aeronautical facility,
  • introduction on board an aircraft or at an airport of a weapon or hazardous device or material intended for criminal purposes,
  • use of an aircraft in service for the purpose of causing death, serious bodily injury, or serious damage to property or the environment,
  • communication of false information such as to jeopardize the safety of an aircraft in flight or on the ground, of passengers, crew, ground personnel or the general public, at an airport or on the premises of a civil aviation facility”.
Injury and death are not mentioned at all. The word murder, as a verb, is defined in the Chambers English dictionary as “to kill someone unlawfully and intentionally”. Clearly, the unlawful interference can include the unlawful and intentional deaths of passengers and crew members, but still murder is not a term used in aviation safety.

A culture of euphemisms

In aviation safety, plain speaking is often avoided when discussing unwanted and unwelcome outcomes. What some call ‘near misses’ between aeroplanes in the air are usually grouped in the blanket term’ loss of separation’. Since the early days of training, pilots will not be ‘lost’ but will be ‘temporarily unsure of position’. The aviation industry and by extension, we, are not being vague or obtuse for any sinister reason. The fact that the worst negative outcome of an aeroplane or helicopter flight is death or serious injury means that we prefer to cloak that truth in a slightly vaguer term; plane speaking is not always plain speaking.

Why exclude ‘unlawful interference’

The practice of excluding such accidents has a legal background, describing the liabilities when accidents occur. In aviation the first legal definition on this topic dates from the 1963 Tokyo Convention. Due to the rise in hijackings in the early 1960s the aviation community under ICAO auspices set the legal boundaries for this category. There is however a difference between the liabilities involved and the reporting of such accidents. Open and clear information to the general public is essential, especially nowadays when social media can make and destroy reputations.

More importantly excluding the category from the statistics also potentially excludes it from the analysis. Avoiding unlawful interference is not the sole responsibility of governments or airport security. Measures like the locked cockpit door, taken following terrorist attacks, can become a contributing cause in ‘new’ accidents; as the Germanwings case has shown us. Safety officers and policy makers need to think the unthinkable and plan for the unimaginable to happen. Learning from all of the past incidents and accidents can only be truly effective when all accident categories are taken into account.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information please refer to www.to70.com

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Adrian Young
Adrian Young
Combining safety and efficiency in civil aviation is a key part of our work. With a passion for aviation and aviation safety, I have contributed to safety improvements for airlines and at airports in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Projects range from major hub airports to remote operations from dirt runways. When relaxing, I can be found in the artist’s studio, where I sculpt in stone.
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