Air traffic managers convicted over 2002 collision

 

SWITZERLAND:Four employees of a Swiss air traffic control company have been convicted of manslaughter over the 2002 mid-air collision over Lake Constance which killed 71 people.

A Zürich court found yesterday that, although not working at the time, the managers of the private Swiss company, Skyguide, had contributed to an "inconceivable tragedy".

"None of the accused can excuse themselves with the idea that another person could have prevented the disaster," said judge Rainer Hohler.

In their testimony, the managers had denied any guilt and blamed the unprofessional conduct of the controllers.

Three of the Skyguide managers were given one-year suspended sentences, while a fourth was given a fine of 150 Swiss francs (€91). Four controllers also on trial were acquitted.

By convicting Skyguide managers rather than controllers, the Swiss court agreed with the prosecution's argument that the disaster was caused by a "chain reaction of breaches of duty and casual neglect".

State prosecutors accused management of turning a blind eye to breaches of international safety regulations, such as the long-established practice of leaving only one controller monitoring busy Swiss airspace while another took a break.

According to the prosecution, controllers had not been fully informed that safety equipment that might have given an early warning of the looming collision was down for repairs.

The ruling also clears the name of Peter Nielsen, the sole controller on duty at the station shortly before midnight on July 1st, 2002.

When he realised that a Russian passenger liner and a German cargo aircraft were on a collision course, he ordered the Russian aircraft to sink without knowing the German pilot had already begun to do the same after receiving a system warning.

The aircraft collided, scattering bodies and bags over the southern German town of Überlingen. Fifty-two of the dead were Russian schoolchildren who were going to Spain on holiday.

The air crash, one of the worst in European history, had tragic consequences for Mr Nielsen: two years later he was stabbed to death in front of his family at his Zürich home by the father of two of the dead children.

Last May, with convictions looming, Skyguide chief executive Francis Schubert admitted that the company's system on that night "didn't function as it was supposed to".

The company has since reduced by a fifth the amount of air traffic it monitors and has paid compensation to the families of the victims.