7 July 2002

Phones were shut down at Swiss crash control tower

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

German investigators have revealed that the telephone system in the Swiss air control tower that oversaw last week's aircraft crash over Lake Constance was out of action in the crucial minutes before the accident that killed 71 people, mostly children.

The disclosure by Germany's air accident control authority (BFU) in Brunswick adds to a catalogue of personnel and system failures which appear to have created chaos in the Zurich air traffic control tower before the Russian Tupolev 154 slammed into a Boeing 757 last Monday night.

According to German investigators, a lone air traffic controller was monitoring a total of five flights in the minutes before the crash because his colleague had broken regulations and gone off on a break. He tried in vain to ease his workload by repeatedly calling air controllers at Germany's Friedrichshafen airport to get them to take over the job of guiding an incoming aircraft.

BFU officials have established, however, that the Zurich air control tower's telephone system was shut down for routine repairs between 11.25pm and 11.33pm on Monday night and that the controller's attempts to contact the other airport were in vain. "He made his last attempt to call Friedrichshafen 98 seconds before ordering the Tupolev to start diving," said a BFU spokesman. The failure of the tower's telephone network coincided with other crucial system breakdowns.

Jean Overy, a spokesman for the BFU, said in an interview yesterday that while the tower's radar system appeared to have been working at the time of the crash, its collision warning system was not showing on the tower's computer screens. "Normally aircraft flight paths show up in red in the event of an impending collision, but the air traffic controller appears to
have only seen green," he said.

Mr Overy said that the BFU had warned Skyguide - the partially privatised Swiss company that runs Zurich's air traffic control - as early as 1996 that such system failures were unacceptable. Skyguide was severely criticised by the BFU last week for failing to give enough advance warning to the Tupolev which altered its flight path in an attempt to avoid the
Boeing only 44 seconds before the crash. Skyguide has offered conflicting explanations for the disaster.

German and Swiss state prosecutors are preparing a suit against Skyguide on the grounds of negligence. On Friday the Zurich-based company implemented a news blackout and refused to respond to further questions.

While Germany's accident investigators began evaluating the contents of the aircrafts' black box recorders yesterday, a legal dispute erupted between the German government and lawyers in the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg over air control rights in the crash region.

Bernhard Wutz, a lawyer for Baden-Wurttemberg, accused the German government of breaking constitutional law by having allowed the Swiss air authorities to assume sole control of flights in the region on the basis of an agreement that had not been ratified.

A spokesman for the German government said that the rules governing airspace over southern Germany were based on an agreement between Skyguide and the German air traffic controllers' association reached more than 10 years ago. "It is in accordance with the needs, practice and principles of the Single European Sky project which envisages similar agreements in all EU border areas by 2004," he said.