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Skyguide braced for fresh challenges

Skyguide employees will be tried over the Überlingen crash Keystone

Switzerland's air traffic control agency Skyguide faces new hurdles this year, including a trial next month of eight employees implicated in a major air crash.

This content was published on April 25, 2007 - 17:30

The agency says it has made significant strides to improve safety in the wake of the 2002 mid-air collision of two aircraft over Überlingen, southern Germany, in which 71 people died.

On Wednesday Skyguide announced mixed financial results, describing 2006 as a year of highs and lows.

The agency has endured some turbulence since its creation in 2001, following the merger of Switzerland's civilian and military air traffic control operations.

The fatal accident a year later resulted in negligent manslaughter charges being filed against the eight employees. Skyguide has admitted partial responsibility for the crash and was criticised by the German authorities for the role it played.

It is currently under pressure to fill up to 45 controller positions and has been forced to raise fees to plug a SFr300,000 ($250,000) hole in its finances.

In 2004 Skyguide was told to make cuts of SFr15 million by the end of this year. Some of these cuts have been met with redundancies, resulting in a drop in full-time equivalent posts from 1,190.5 in 2005 to 1,183.7 in 2006.

Skyguide spokesman Patrick Herr told swissinfo that staffing was further complicated by a lack of qualified air traffic controllers on the market.

Lack of controllers

He said the agency needed to find between 40 and 45 controllers to cover future demand. A critical 2003 safety report by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory (NRL), commissioned by the Swiss federal authorities, identified staffing levels as one area that Skyguide could improve.

"Understaffing of air traffic controllers is a worldwide phenomenon because it takes three-and-a-half years of training before they are ready to work," Herr said.

"The Swiss market is small and we have bottlenecks for on-the-job training. But we plan to cooperate with France and Germany to address the situation."

Herr denied the recent use of temporary staff to fill gaps presented a safety hazard, saying these members of staff are not permitted to perform critical safety functions. Skyguide has always maintained that its cost-cutting measures would not affect safety.

Meeting safety targets

Announcing its annual financial results on Wednesday, Skyguide chairman Guy Emmenegger described 2006 as "a mixed bag, with some highs but also some lows".

"The positive result shows that Skyguide is doing good work. But we should also be able to learn from mistakes and failures, and that is something we have done in a self-critical way," he added.

On the positive side, the agency was praised by the NRL in January for meeting most of the improvements recommended in its 2003 report.

And earlier this month the Swiss transport ministry said the agency had also achieved general targets set during the past three years.

The biggest failure was the government rejection last year of a proposed control centre in Geneva to manage the Swiss segment of European high altitude air space, putting further pressure on the allocation of staff.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Skyguide handled a record 1,162,078 Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flights last year, up 2.6 per cent on 2005.
Turnover fell 3.6 per cent to SFr341 million ($284 million), but profit rose to SFr18.79 million from SFr14.49 million in 2005.
Operating expenses revealed a shortfall of SFr300,000. This was explained by three successive years of reductions in fees charged for its services. Fees have been raised by 5% for 2007.

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In brief

Skyguide is a non-profit making 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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Überlingen crash trial

Three Skyguide managers, two maintenance staff and three other employees have been charged with negligent manslaughter in relation to the Überlingen air accident that claimed 71 lives.

On July 1 2002 a Russian passenger plane, carrying many schoolchildren, collided in mid-air with a cargo jet in the Swiss controlled airspace over southern Germany.

The accused, also charged with negligent disruption of public transport, will appear before Bülach district court in canton Zurich on May 15.

The public prosecutor has called for suspended jail sentences of between six and 15 months, but all eight defendants have denied responsibility for the collision.

A relative of three victims, Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev, took revenge on the controller on duty at the time by stabbing him to death outside his family home in Zurich in February 2004. Kaloyev was found guilty of intentional killing a year later.

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