A bomb explosion and the threat of a second bomb at the Spanish Gran Canaria airport on March 27, 1977, resulted in the temporary diversion of many aircraft to the Los Rodeos Airport (now called Tenerife North Airport). The crowding of planes in Los Rodeos forced its air traffic controllers (ATC) to direct some of the planes’ pilots to park their aircraft on two taxiways, congesting these eventually.
As the Gran Canaria reopened that same day, planes actually en route to it prepared to proceed there. Two among these planes were 747s: the KLM Flight 4805, with 234 passengers and 14 crew members, and the Pan Am Flight 1736, with 380 passengers.
Communications began between these two 747s and the ATC for takeoff instructions. With two taxiways clogged with parked planes, the ATC assigned Runway 12/30, which is normally used for takeoffs only, as both taxiway and runway. Due to the fog that blanketed the airport and with no ground radar, ATC knew only of the planes’ activities and locations through each pilot’s inputs. About eight minutes after communications began between the planes and the ATC, the two planes collided, killing 583 people (crew members and passengers) in what is now considered as the deadliest accident in aviation history.
Parts of the recorded exchanges revealed two things: the obvious miscommunication between the ATC and the two flight crews and the absence of standardized English phrases that will allow flight crews and ATCs to clearly understand each other. And while many aviation accidents in the past have been blamed on pilots, the blame to this particular aviation tragedy rested on the ATC.
In 2012, from the 132 million flights handled by US ATCs, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was able to discover 4,394 errors; 41 of these were high risk mistakes, which could have ended catastrophically.
Critics say that the yearly number of ATC mistakes reported to the FAA is far below what is real. ATCs have the primary duty of ensuring safety in aviation activities by keeping planes at a safe distance from each other.
One probable cause of ATC slipups is the “rattlers” working schedule which only allow these controllers little sleep (or totally deny them any sleep at all) before overnight shifts; a situation that has resulted to some controllers sleeping on the job.
The FAA has a program aimed at preventing its 15,000 controllers to experience fatigue while on the job; however, this program has been subjected to budget cuts and studies about this is being prevented by FAA officials from being reviewed.
Despite the increase of ATC errors in 2013, which saw about 6,700 situations wherein planes flew closer to each other than allowed in US airspace, it remains a fact that air travel remains to be the safest and fastest means of long distance transportation. Obviously, the most disastrous plane accidents have also been the bases of changes and improvements in the aviation industry.
But while all studies may point to experts’ concurrence about the safety of air travel, when an accident occurs, the fact that victims and/or their families may be entitled to compensation due to damages resulting from the accident cannot be denied.
Though there is a federal law that prohibits law firms from contacting victims within 45 days after a plane accident, no law prohibits victims from contacting a lawyer to inquire about his or her rights, especially with regard to the maximum amount of compensation that he or she is legally allowed to receive. Getting in touch with a lawyer is very important during this 45-day inclusive period as the airline company is very likely to make a move to settle with the victims.