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Civil aviation office unveils sweeping reforms

"Safety first" is the FOCA's new motto

(Keystone)

The Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) has announced a radical shake-up in its organisational structure in an effort to improve safety in the skies and on the ground.

The move follows criticism that the Swiss authorities have failed to arrest a decline in air safety standards.

Announcing the measures on Friday, the FOCA said that its priority was to put “safety first”.

“The Swiss public expects us to enhance the standards of safety in civil aviation,” said the FOCA’s new head, Raymond Cron, who took up his post two months ago.

His comments come in the wake of an independent report into aviation security which concluded that safety levels in Switzerland were in decline at the same time as they were improving in other parts of Europe.

Under fire

The transport ministry – of which the FOCA is a part - has come under increasing fire in recent years over its handling of the aviation dossier.

In 2001 the transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, was accused of not doing enough to prevent the grounding of the country’s bankrupt national airline, Swissair.

There have also been concerns about a steady decline in air safety standards.

The worst accident in Swiss civil aviation history occurred when a Swissair MD-11 jet went down off the coast of Canada in 1998. All 229 passengers and crew on board were killed.

In November 2001 a Crossair plane crashed on its final approach to Zurich with the loss of 24 lives.

The most recent disaster occurred in July 2002, when a Russian passenger jet collided with a DHL cargo plane in Swiss-controlled airspace, killing 71 people. Switzerland’s air traffic control agency, Skyguide, was partially blamed for failing to prevent the collision.

Forced to resign

Although Leuenberger has survived calls for his resignation, the FOCA’s former head, André Auer, was forced to resign last summer over criticism that his office had lost its grip on civil aviation security.

Many of the measures announced on Friday follow recommendations made in the report, conducted by Dutch experts, which called for a national air safety policy as well as increased resources at the FOCA.

The aviation office’s security and policy units will be separated, while the security section will be split into three subdivisions: technical, flight operations and infrastructure.

In February, parliament approved the hiring of an extra 60 members of staff at the FOCA. Of the 230 experts at the office, 150 are expected to work in the security domain.

Restructuring has already begun and the revamped office is scheduled to be fully operational by January 1.

Solving problems

But Cron admits that additional resources and more staff will not solve all the office’s problems.

“Additional staff cannot be the answer to everything. What we need is a complete change in the way we think about aviation safety,” he said.

“[And] that means doing more than just simply changing the structure of our office.”

Cron said the first signs of the change in policy were evident this week after FOCA officials uncovered serious security lapses at Zurich airport.

Aviation safety inspectors managed to smuggle a fake bomb on board an aircraft in a container belonging to airline caterer Gate Gourmet.

“The inspections we carried out at Zurich airport are one element of the new philosophy,” Cron told swissinfo.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Recent Swiss aviation crashes:
1998: Swissair crash off coast of Canada - 229 deaths.
2000: Crossair crash near Zurich airport - 10 die.
2001: Crossair jumbolino hits hill near Zurich - 24 die, 9 survive.
2002: Mid-air collision in Swiss airspace over southern Germany - 71 deaths.

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