On the night of June 1, 2002, a DHL Boeing 557 was cruising from Bergamo in Italy to Brussels. At the same time, a Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev-154 was cruising from Munich to Barcelona (Branstner, n.d.). Both planes had the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS) and their flight route put them on a collision course at around Lake Constance in Germany. The area was under the Zurich Area Control Centre (ACC). A Swiss controller ordered the Boeing 557 to climb to flight level 320 and later to flight level 360 (Nunes & Laursen, 2004). The Tupolev-154 later called in and there was no communication until when the TCAS warned both pilots of a possible collision. Later, the controller ordered the Tupolev-154 to drop to flight level 350 to prevent colliding with the Boeing 557. TCAS instructed the Tupolev-154 to rise and the Boeing 557 to drop. Based on the conflicting instructions from the controller and the TCAS, the Tupolev-154 pilot chose to drop and finally collided with the Boeing 557 killing all the 71 passengers on board (Nunes & Laursen, 2004).
Two problems led to the mid-air collision leading to 71 deaths and destruction of property. The first is that the Russian pilot manning the Tupolev-154 chose to give higher preference to Air Traffic Controller (ATC) instead of TCAS and dropped his flight level instead of increasing it (Nunes & Laursen, 2004). The second issue revolved around the controller’s negligence. He was aware of two planes flying towards a collision course but he took too long before giving the descend order as well as informing the Tupolev-154 pilot of the prevailing traffic conditions. As an air traffic regulator, his key goal was to monitor traffic.
Significance of the Problem
The problems above reflect decisions that affect the aviation industry. For instance, there is an element of trust in computerized control systems. The Tupolev-154 pilot chose to follow ATC orders instead of TCAS’. Trust is a complex element linked to “sociology and psychology” (Branstner, n.d). A trusting party focuses their faith on a path that they are assured of receiving positive results. For this case, the positive result was the safety of the passengers. Even though plane systems are highly reliable, the fact that they at times give unnecessary alarms may have forced the pilot to pay more attention to ATC’s orders. The other problem is that the controller took long to react accordingly to the impending situation. This can be attributed to the Single Man Operation (SMOP) air control procedure that came into effect into 2001 amid protests (Nunes & Laursen, 2004). When used, a controller is left overwhelmed with work leading to errors. Also, the telephone system used by the Zurich Area Control Centre was under maintenance that night. In aviation, maintenance is done at night due to less traffic.
The best alternative would have been strict adherence to TCAS. In aviation, more so within the United States, TCAS is given preference over ATC unlike in Russia where a pilot chooses what to follow (Branstner, n.d.). Also, when servicing communication equipment, there should have been an effort to have backup systems that would have kept the controller in constant touch with the pilots. Besides, SMOP should not have been implemented at night when staff are more likely to be tired.
To avoid a similar incident, several recommendations should be considered. One of them entails having sufficient staff to monitor air traffic equipment at any given time. Errors that one controller makes can be realized and corrected on time (Johnson, 2004). The other recommendation involves better exchange and response to instructions between pilots and air traffic controllers. Specifically, communication should be open until a given party acts in line with a given order. Finally, pilots must be aware of variations in aviation protocols in various areas in line with TCAS and ATC warnings (Johnson, 2004).