Air accidents are investigated by the government that has jurisdiction over the area where the aircraft has crashed. In the UK, air accidents are investigated by the Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB). In the US, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is responsible for investigating air accidents.

Where an accident location is not in the territory of any country (for example in international waters), it is the country where the aircraft is registered that should perform the investigation. Countries may also investigate accidents on behalf of another country if, after mutual agreement, the investigation is delegated to them.

Air accident investigations are conducted in accordance with the international standards and recommended practices as set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO Annex 13 – Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation). The objective of the investigation is to identify the circumstances and causes of the accident so that lessons can be learned to prevent aviation accidents and improve flight safety.  It is not the purpose of the air accident investigation to apportion blame or liability.

For EU Member States and the UK, Regulation (EU) No 996/2010 sets out the legal requirements on the investigation and prevention of accidents and incidents in civil aviation.

Regulation (EU) No 996/2010 also requires States to take account of ICAO Annex 13. In addition, Member States may have further national legislation to complement Regulation (EU) No 996/2010.

During an air accident investigation, the investigators will work with a number of entities, such as the aircraft manufacturer and aircraft operator, to assist them with the investigation. These entities provide assistance such as specialist expertise, technical information and technical analysis of the wreckage components. Involvement in the investigation of other entities, who may also be defendants in the separate legal action, can be perceived by victims and the public as a conflict of interest in what is supposed to be an independent safety investigation.

The purpose of working with other participants is to ensure the best possible evidence is gathered with the best technical expertise, so that the investigation can have maximum impact on the prevention of future accidents. To avoid any conflict of interest, their participation in the investigation is under the control of the Investigator In Charge (IIC). The IIC is appointed by the country conducting the investigation and he or she must ensure that there is no interference or conflict of interest that prejudices the independence of the investigation.

Victims and relatives of those affected by aircraft accidents are not allowed to be participants in the accident investigation. With no access to the accident investigation prior to the publication of the Final Accident report, they are reliant on publication of preliminary interim reports and/ or briefings from the accident investigators to obtain information on the accident investigation progress.

Once the investigation is complete, a final report should be published. The final report should consist of factual information about the accident, an analysis, conclusions (probable cause) and safety recommendations. Under ICAO Annex 13, the final report should be published as soon as possible or within 12 months. However, due to the nature and complexity of air accidents, it can often be over 12 months or sometimes several years before a final report is published. In these circumstances, ICAO Annex 13 provides that an interim report should be published on each anniversary of the air accident.  In addition to this 12 month recommendation, in a number of countries, including the UK, it is common for the authorities to publish preliminary reports/ special bulletins on a periodic basis that is shorter than 12 months.

Although the aim of the air accident investigation is to identify the full chain of events and cause(s) of the accident to prevent similar accidents in the future, there are a number of circumstances that can hamper the investigators ability to do this. Factors include the resources and sophistication of a country’s air accident authority, location/ condition of the wreckage, damage to the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) / Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) data or where the crash involves an aircraft that is not fitted with a FDR or CVR.

This means that the Final Accident Report may be inconclusive or of limited value. For the families and victims, this can make the process of finding answers and pursuing a legal case very difficult. In these circumstances, Nexa Law uses its in-house professional pilot expertise to independently investigate the causes of the air accident. This is used to help the families and victims understand what went wrong and identify the best litigation strategy to hold those responsible to account. The following cases provide some examples of this expertise:

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