REPERCUSSIONS OF THE WORST AIR DISASTER OF A CONTINENT: POLITICS SHOULD NOT INTERFERE IN AVIATION SAFETY
Due to the particularities of the global air network, many small countries are dependent of the air system of certain gigantic countries for air to travel from one continent to another. But in recent times the aviation in one of those countries went through many upheavals. What is striking is that the last major plane crash in that region generated an unprecedented reaction: a wave of demonstrations against politicians.
The accident of 17 July 2007 was the worst in the continent, but somehow it was less shocking than that of Flight 1907, which collided with another plane over the jungle in September 2006. That former accident was a surprise, but the one that came later was somewhat expected. It was so because the crash of Flight 3054 must be placed in the context of what was happening with the air traffic in the country in question.
After the mid-air collision of 2006, which killed 154 people, the Minister of Defense, to which the Civil Aviation in the country in question is subordinated, repeated over and over again that the air traffic control system was not to blame at all. It had been recently modernized at a cost many times millionaire, with new radars and communication systems, which also serve to military activities. There was enormous pressure to blame the pilots of the other plane (who managed to land, with no casualties onboard) and more than once the nationality of them (Americans) was mentioned in negative tone. The rush to find culprits went even to the extent that the Justice intervened before data from the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder were available to the investigators, and thus the foreign pilots were detained by the police.
AIR TRAFFIC JAM
But gradually it was seen that the story was not complete. When it became clear that there were errors in the route assignation to the small aircraft (which would place it on a collision course with the airliner), the air traffic controllers began to feel pressured. The reaction soon appeared, with a more rigorous enforcement of the maximum number of planes run by each controller and more restrictions to the continuous flow of air traffic. Inevitably, delays began to appear.
The explanation of the air traffic controllers was that they were overworked, and that the blame for the extreme situation in air traffic safety was the lack of staff and infrastructure. It became clear that the multi-million reforms were insufficient: the collision between the two aircraft occurred out of range of the new radars and radio.
Throughout the months of slow operations the situation got worse, until at the end of the year the air traffic was almost collapsing. Airlines, unable to meet their schedules, began canceling flights. Thousands of passengers had to spend New Year's Eve in the waiting halls of airports.
The relationship between the authorities and the air controllers became increasingly tense, especially because these are mostly military personnel, without the right to question the actions of their superiors. Short strikes were initiated, but the leaders ended in military jails, accused of mutiny.
Meanwhile the authorities failed to give coherent answers. For them there was no crisis, to the point that the Finance Minister even said that the long lines at the airports were the result of the country's prosperity. When the Minister of Tourism was asked what travelers should do in face of the tortuous hours (or even days) in the waiting halls, she replied: "relax and enjoy".
Analysts attributed the bottleneck to the fact that air transport in the country in question was growing 12% a year, mainly since the arrival of low-cost airlines, but the government was not expanding infrastructure. Taxes and airport fees were simply diverted to other expenses within the government bureaucracy.
THE MOST CRITICAL POINT
The most criticized point was probably the airport that had the most movements: it was at the center of the largest city in the continent, but had just one runway dedicated to airlines, serving about 38 aircraft per hour. And the worst thing was that safety was marginal: the runway is very short, about 1900 meters (the runway in the capital city of a small neighboring country has 3400 meters), has no escape area at the thresholds (airplane overruns end directly into the streets and adjacent buildings) and most criticized by pilots: it became very slippery when wet. There were many cases of aircraft that skidded and ended up on the grass, or directly on the surrounding car avenues, which demanded a resurfacing in early 2007.
But unrest continued, because they spent more money in reforms to the buildings of the passenger terminal, and the last thing that was reopened was exactly the runway, with its drainage system incomplete. On the first day of rain several pilots complained that the runway was more slippery than before, and the next day a plane actually skidded and ended up on the grass.
On the third day what was overrunning the runway was Flight 3054, killing 199 people.
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
As an echo of what happened in 2006, immediately after the accident the director of the entity in charge of the country's airports began repeating right and left that the short and slippery runway had nothing to do with the crash.
At a press conference, the airline quickly said the plane was in perfect technical condition.
But, amid the tears, relatives of the victims began to show anger.
The accident happened at the end of the afternoon, but they had to wait until the next morning to get a first version of the passenger list. And the list was changing with every passing day, as it was discovered that there were more people on board. As one family member said, the airline demanded that travelers must show up hours prior to the actual embarking, for the "check-in", but then the company did not know who got on the plane and who did not.
The first contact of the president of the company with the families apparently had little tact: he appeared escorted by insurance representatives. The affected ones had not yet buried their deads, but executives were already focusing on monetary compensation. As another family member said, the sensation was as if their aircraft were transporting cattle, and with paying a sum everything was OK again.
State officials, responsible for ensuring the well-being of citizens, were unfortunate with their statements. Advisors to the President were seen celebrating in the very Government Palace (with obscene gestures) the revelation that the plane did not have one of its multiple braking systems completely operative.
A press correspondent noted that the president of the Republic made an address to the country just the third day after, lagging behind the condolences having reached the country's capital even from foreign presidents. No administrative sanctions were announced, but he ordered the that runway was to be investigated by the police (?!). Then he offered to build a new airport, in a well isolated place, as the solution.
The mayor of the city said that it would be more rational, fast and simple to expropriate the inhabited area near the current runway's thresholds. Pilots noted that one of the main landing obstacles was a 11-story hotel recently built a mere few city blocks from the landing aim point, which greatly hindered the approach maneuver. No one yet knows how the business enterprise owner had obtained a construction permit.
Meanwhile, when the remains of the crashed plane were still smoldering, the president of the country's civil aviation overseeing agency attended a military ceremony in order to be honored for "outstanding merits in the service of Aviation".
At a time when serenity and humility are necessary for listening to aviation experts for solutions, the director of airports rejected a suggestion by the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers for foreign advice to improve air safety, saying: "The accident is ours, the plane was ours, the deads are ours, do not intrude!", forgetting the many international flights that his country receives every day.
The political interference in air safety escalated when two congressmen demanded to be allowed to participate in the listening of the Cockpit Voice Recorder and in the reading of the Flight Data Recorder, which were being conducted behind closed doors by technicians from the manufacturer of the aircraft, the engines' manufacturer, airline representatives and crash investigators from the technical agency for air accidents. The director of the technical investigation calmly replied that the purpose of any investigation is to identify what factors caused the accident, in order to issue recommendations to prevent the recurrence of these factors. The air crash investigation's goal was not to send anyone to jail, even because this would make many witnesses to refrain from coming forward and provide useful data. He even recalled that they were acting so under international treaties on the topic. The response of the congressmen: "You will deliver to us that technical data even if we have to resort to force!"
Meanwhile, many thousands of similar aircraft are still flying all around the world, in and out of many airports nestled in the center of large cities, with pilots waiting for recommendations on how to operate them more safely.
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Based on an article first published in ABC Color on 13 August 2007. Photo: The grim local of the tragic impact of Flight 3054, with wreckage of the aircraft of such a so unfortunate accident still visible. Credit: Center for Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents / Aeronautics Command.