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Germany: Crash Investigators Focus On Swiss Controllers

This month's mid-air collision between a Russian passenger aircraft and a cargo plane over southern Germany, which cost the lives of 71 people, including 52 children, has aroused calls for a reform of Europe's system of air-traffic control. Many experts now believe the current system poses a safety threat and must be overhauled.

Munich, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian airliner was carrying mostly young people from the republic of Bashkortostan who were traveling to Spain for a vacation when it collided with a cargo plane over German territory near Lake Constance on 1 July.

In all, 71 people died, including more than 50 children. At the time of the crash, Swiss air-traffic controllers in Zurich had responsibility for both planes.

A final report on the disaster has yet to be issued, but in preliminary findings this week, investigators have criticized the fact that only one controller was on duty in Zurich at the time while another was taking a break.

Swiss prosecutors have even launched a criminal investigation to see if charges of negligent homicide are warranted.

The German investigators also cite failures in communications between Zurich air-traffic control and the two planes, and with other air-traffic-control centers nearby. German air controllers in Karlsruhe, who were tracking the two planes, noticed they were on a collision course. They say they tried to warn their colleagues in Zurich but could not make contact.

The head of the German Federal Bureau for Air Accident Investigations, Jean Overney, said the recovered voice recorders from the planes reveal that the pilot of the Russian plane, a Tupolev 154, received contradictory instructions. His onboard warning system said the plane should ascend while Swiss air control said it should descend. He decided to descend, which resulted in the collision with the other aircraft, which was also descending.

These and other questions have prompted the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation to establish a high-level committee to draft new recommendations for improving security in Europe's skies. These are expected in November.

Spokeswoman Katrin Framm said today the inability of the Karlsruhe controllers to contact Zurich underscores one of the most urgent needs: to improve communications between air-traffic controllers in different parts of the continent. "We need a system of telephone hot lines for rapid contact between air-traffic controllers in an emergency. This should be backed up by a computer link. We should also develop better ways for the pilots and controllers to talk to each other in an emergency," Framm said.

She said experts believe that far broader measures are needed to improve safety as the amount of air traffic over Europe grows year by year. These include possibly reducing the number of separate air-traffic control centers.

Europe has more than 70 major air-traffic control centers. This compares with fewer than 30 in North America, though the North American territory is three times larger and handles more planes.

North America has a unified air-traffic-control system, while Europe uses a regional system in which controllers in different regions guide planes passing through their area.

The day after the Lake Constance collision, Jim Eckes, the managing director of a Swiss airline consulting company, called for Swiss airspace to be merged into the German zone, putting it under German control.

Eckes said many of Europe's airlines support the idea of a uniform airspace over Europe. They believe it should come under the responsibility of the European Union and that it would be cheaper to operate.

The idea is opposed by the air-traffic controllers themselves, who fear they will lose their jobs if the number of air-traffic control centers is cut.

The German airline Lufthansa told RFE/RL today that it supported the idea of a uniform airspace but said the European Union had held only preliminary discussions on the idea.