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Skyguide failures blamed for plane crash

Seventy-one people died in the Überlingen air crash on July 1, 2002 Keystone

Eight employees of Swiss air traffic control agency Skyguide are facing charges in court of carelessness and dereliction of duty over a mid-air collision in 2002.

A district court near Zurich will spend the next two weeks trying to determine their degree of responsibility in the crash of two jets in Swiss-controlled airspace over southern Germany that left 71 people dead.

Prosecutor Bernhard Hecht has called for suspended sentences of between six and 15 months for the eight accused, including a controller who was on a break when the collision occurred on July 1, 2002.

Three Skyguide managers, two maintenance staff and three other employees have been charged with negligent manslaughter in relation to the accident. The accused, who have denied any responsibility, also faces charges of negligent disruption of public transport.

Seven of the men are still employees of the agency, while the last one has retired.

The collision took place in Swiss-controlled airspace over Germany’s Lake Constance area. A Tupolev aircraft operated by Russia’s Bashkirian Airlines and carrying 69 people crashed into a cargo jet flying for DHL at an altitude of 11,300 metres.

Everyone on board both planes was killed in the collision, including 49 children and teenagers heading to Spain on holiday.

The controller who was on duty in Zurich when the crash occurred was stabbed to death outside his family home in 2004 by a Russian man who lost his wife and two children in the collision. Vitaly Kaloyev was found guilty of intentional killing a year later.

Human error

A 2004 report from Germany’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau partially blamed Swiss air traffic control for the accident. But it also said that the crash was caused primarily by human error.

The report found that the air-traffic controller on duty at the time gave the planes instructions to avoid a collision only 43 seconds before impact.

It added that the crew of the Bashkirian Airlines jet obeyed the controller’s instruction to descend, but failed to listen to their on-board collision warning system, which advised them to climb.

But for the prosecutor, none of this would have happened and the catastrophe would have been avoided if Skyguide had fulfilled its duties.

Hecht has criticised Skyguide’s management for authorising the procedure that meant only one controller was effectively on duty after 11pm. The Federal Civil Aviation Office and the Federal Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau also gave the go-ahead.

Maintenance work

The prosecutor’s case states that a lone employee would have too much to do and that flight safety could not be guaranteed.

On the fateful evening, the controllers arriving on duty had not informed themselves about working conditions. They did not realise that, because of maintenance work, the backup radar system was not 100 per cent effective, nor that the emergency telephone system was not functioning properly.

The manager of the previous shift as well as the systems manager did not brief them either. Even before maintenance work began, controllers had not been sufficiently advised of technical problems, especially the faulty phone line.

The head of Skyguide at the time, Alain Rossier, has not been charged. According to Hecht, the former director’s direct responsibility in the collision cannot be shown.

Rossier was also not aware of the technical work going on at the time, and therefore cannot be held responsible for understaffing, the prosecutor told swissinfo.

The trial in Bülach district court is expected to last two weeks.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

Skyguide is a non-profitmaking limited company that is 99% owned by the Swiss government.

It is responsible for air traffic control in Switzerland and parts of neighbouring countries.

Skyguide is based in Geneva, but a new Air Navigation Service Centre in Zurich is expected to be fully operational next year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR