Angry birds

A safety auditor was engaged by an oil & gas exploration company to conduct a routine operational safety audit of an air charter operator. The client was particularly interested in the safety performance of the operator’s two turbo-prop aircraft. On arrival at the operator’s base, the auditor was advised that one turboprop was undergoing routine maintenance at a maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) facility in Canada.

The auditor conducted his safety audit on the remaining aircraft as per his standard procedure, examining the operations manuals and the pilot training, currency and aircraft maintenance records. He also conducted two spot checks on the aircraft to confirm that specific airworthiness directives had been complied with. No anomalies were found.

During the audit, the operator offered the auditor the opportunity to fly in the cockpit jump-seat so that he could observe the operational aspects of the aircraft. However, the auditor was unsure whether his insurance covered him to do that, and whether he could secure the necessary visas. He therefore declined the offer.

After 2 days on site the auditor returned to his office and later sent a report to the client stating that, on the basis of what he had seen, the operator would be capable of providing a safe charter service to his client.

The oil & gas exploration company engaged the operator for twice-weekly round trip flights in the turbo-prop aircraft. However, several months later the turbo-prop which the auditor had not seen crashed, causing significant bodily injury to passengers and damage to the aircraft. The investigation into the accident determined that, unknown to the operator, the pilots sometimes departed from the flight plan. On this occasion they had flown low over a lake to get a good view of birds which were nesting on its banks. The aircraft suffered a large bird strike which shattered the windscreens and destroyed one of the two engines.

Claims were brought against the operator by those passengers who had suffered bodily injury in the crash. They alleged that the crash had occurred as a result of the operator’s negligent operation of the aircraft. As the passengers were US Citizens, the claim was brought under US jurisdiction and the damages were in excess of US$10m. However, the operator contested liability and brought the auditor into the action on the grounds that had the auditor accepted the offer of a flight during his audit it was likely that he would have learned of the pilots’ willingness to depart from their flight plans for non-operational reasons.

ITIC funded the auditor’s defence against the claim. His decision to decline the offer of a flight in the jump seat was reasonable in the circumstances, and even if he had taken up the operator’s offer of a flight, it was unlikely that the pilots would have flown recklessly at a low altitude with a safety auditor on board. Further, his report had clearly stated that he had not had the opportunity to inspect the aircraft that had crashed. The claim was successfully defended and the member’s defence costs were covered under the terms of his insurance policy with ITIC.

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