The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Air disaster in Switzerland:
The race to profit kills

Jul 22, 2002

On July 2, a German Boeing and a Russian Tupolev collided in flight over the German-Swiss border, leaving 71 dead. The number would have been much higher if the Boeing hadn’t been a cargo plane without passengers.

In the days immediately after the crash, the controllers mentioned pilot error; insufficient knowledge of English (the international language of flight) by the Russian team; too slow a reaction to the orders from the control tower; or an electronic equipment failure in the anti-collision system.

The rescuers, however, found the black box, which gives flight data; and the final conversations between the cockpit and the ground have undercut these “explanations.” So the officials have now turned to blaming the Swiss air traffic controllers. One of them is so shocked he can’t testify, but no matter, this clears their employer, Skyguide, a private air control company. Nonetheless, everything indicates that this company and its mode of functioning played an enormous role in this tragedy.

The night of the crash, the software of the Swiss air control system was being serviced, but there was no back-up system to take its place. In countries where air control is privatized, there is only one air navigation system. In countries where it is not privatized, there are usually two systems for support. But that would cost money, and Skyguide runs first for profit. So the controller was not able to warn the two planes until 50 seconds before the crash because he was working manually and by telephone. And the telephone of the air traffic control tower in Zurich was also being serviced, so it wasn’t working. So the air traffic controllers on the German side, who were following these aircraft, were not able to warn anyone of the imminent catastrophe.

According to the current official story, there was only a single controller at his post when the collision happened because the other was taking a coffee break. This is the kind of half-truth, which, in reality, is a lie. According to the other air traffic controllers, the Swiss controllers are supposed to take such breaks. The rules make them take regular breaks during their shift, in order to lessen the tensions of being responsible for dozens of airplanes and the lives of their passengers. If there were not enough people on duty during that shift, it is first and foremost the responsibility of Skyguide, which has a reputation in the world of air traffic controllers for shaving what it spends on personnel and equipment.

Just one week before this crash, the Swiss Federal Bureau of Inquiry, reporting on a much earlier accident in 1998, had criticized the quality of the radar system used by Skyguide. Of course, the bureau had not forced Skyguide to increase its security because this would have affected the shareholders’ dividends.