Small Mistake, Big Consequences
What happens when an Air Traffic Controller makes a mistake? It’s a big question because at the end of the day the life and safety of passengers and crew don’t just depend on the plane and the pilots but also the judgment of well trained ATC staff in towers, control centers, etc. all over the world.
Examples from the past show what can happen when ATC makes a mistake. In 2002, Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937, a Tupolev Tu-154 passenger jet, and DHL Flight 611, a Boeing 757 cargo jet, collided over Germany resulting in the death of 71 people. There have been several court cases where individual employees of the Air Traffic Authority have been sentenced to imprisonment, suspended sentences, and fines.
But what happens, if ATC makes a mistake, where nobody was hurt? What is the call to make in such a case? Does there have to be an internal investigation? Does the controller need to be dismissed? Or should he even be brought before a court?
April 2013. A Ryanair flight from Pisa (Italy) to Lübeck (Germany) and a TAP flight from Lissabon (Portugal) to Prague (Czechia) both just entered Swiss airspace. They both contacted Center Control where an Air Traffic Controller of the Swiss ATC department “SkyGuide” was in charge of handling all traffic in the area. It was just a regular day; nothing special happened so far.
At one point, the Ryanair pilot asked for an altitude change. Nothing out of the ordinary, however, he only reported the callsign, but not the flight number. The air traffic controller thought the request came from another Ryanair aircraft and allowed the change of altitude without a concrete demand for the specific callsign. The Ryanair pilot from whom the request came thanked, again without naming the callsign.
During the climb, a TCAS alarm suddenly sounded in the cockpit of the Ryanair aircraft. The aircraft came dangerously close to the TAP flight. The smallest distance between the two aircraft was 1.5 kilometers horizontally and 198 meters vertically. The prescribed minimum distance was 9.26 kilometers horizontally and about 305 meters vertically.
The error was noticed; the planes were able to avoid and continue their flight safely. People were not harmed — a mistake without damage.
Last May, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court sentenced the air traffic controller to a conditional fine of 60 daily rates at 300 francs. The ATC controller lodged an appeal with the Swiss Federal Supreme Court against this first-instance decision. However, the appeal was rejected on Thursday.
In its ruling, the Federal Supreme Court states that the air traffic controller has created a real threat and violated his duty of care. The convicted person, on the other hand, argued that there had never been a real danger because the trajectories of the two aircraft involved had not crossed. However, the Federal Court does not accept this argument because unexpected influences are also to be expected.
The verdict has caused considerable uncertainty among air traffic controllers. A good dozen air traffic controllers had called in sick or unable to work today, a Skyguide spokesperson said.
In addition, the number of voluntary reports which air traffic controllers can file after a mistake in order to analyze the error and avoid it in the future has fallen sharply following the first instance ruling in May. The controllers are afraid to say too much because one fears that what has been said can be used against them. According to the SkyGuide spokeswoman, the verdict against the air traffic controller would have had the opposite effect because of this. Safety would suffer as a result.
What do you think?
What’s your opinion on that? Mistakes can happen, as long as there is no harm? Do you believe that the ruling of the court is fair?
In my opinion, it is essential to analyze mistakes in order to learn from them. I also think it is right to take internal disciplinary action if an air traffic controller has been extremely negligent. However, I believe it is wrong to bring an air traffic controller before a court and convict him for a mistake in which no one has been injured and in which gross negligence is only present to a limited extent. All the other air traffic controllers are made to feel insecure, and safety ultimately suffers as a result.
Thank you, and happy landings!