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Spotlight falls on Swiss air traffic controllers

The Swiss air traffic controllers control the airspace over Switzerland and parts of southern Germany Keystone

Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic control service, has come under fire after two planes collided over southern Germany on Monday night.

This content was published on July 2, 2002 - 18:19

The two air traffic controllers, who were in charge when the aircraft - a Tupolev 154 charter aircraft belonging to Russia's Bashkirian Airlines and a Boeing 757 owned by the freight company, DHL - crashed, have been criticised for not reacting to the danger early enough.

Swiss aviation expert Sepp Moser told swissinfo that he could not understand why it took so long for the Zurich-based controllers to warn the Russian airplane.

"In my opinion the air traffic controller's action is a little bit doubtful. He knew at least 13 if not 16 minutes before the crash when the Russian plane would appear on his screen," he said.

"He had plenty of time to prepare for a somewhat difficult situation. But he waited for at least 11 ½ minutes until he initiated action by the Russian plane," added Moser.

Around 12 minutes before the crash, the German air traffic control service handed over guidance of the Boeing to their counterparts in Zurich.

Instructions

Seven minutes later - at about 11.30pm - Skyguide received instructions to take over control of the Russian plane. German air traffic control staff had already given them detailed information about the two airplanes.

A few minutes later, Skyguide staff instructed the pilots of the Tupolev plane to dive down - an instruction they had to repeat several times.

The Swiss air traffic control service maintains that this was a routine procedure and that the controller, who has been in the job for many years, acted correctly.

"The problem was recognised early enough and instructions were given in due course," said Toni Maag, chief of the air traffic control tower in Zurich.

Handover

It is standard practice for Skyguide to assume control of aircraft flying over southern German airspace, due to its proximity to Zurich's Kloten airport.

Co-operation between the two countries is regulated by a series of agreements. "The collaboration with our German colleagues has been very good for many years," said Maag.

"The daily cooperation between the two air traffic control services is regulated according to international standards, like everywhere else in the world," he added.

Vital information

Maag explained that the two neighbouring services exchange vital information before an airplane leaves one country's airspace and enters the other's.

"This information includes the time of arrival as well as the current altitude of the plane. If any corrections are made to the flight details, they have to be made shortly before the plane is handed over to the other air traffic control service," he explained.

Skyguide, which has its headquarters in Geneva, employs 1,400 people and is responsible for air traffic control in Zurich, Geneva, Bern, Lugano and Sion.

It is also responsible for the army airfields in Dübendorf, Payerne, Emmen, Meiringen und Lugano.

swissinfo and Pierre Gobet in Zurich

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