Indian Air Disaster: Could it Happen Here?
November 13, 1996
The largest midair collision in history happened near the New Delhi airport between a Saudi Arabian airliner and another operated by a Kazak airline. All on board the two planes, some 349 people, were killed. We begin with this update by Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Saudi airline's Boeing 747 had just taken off from New Delhi airport, a Kazak Ilyushin 76 cargo plane was about to land--the two collided apparently at about 13,000 feet. Today, Indian authorities released a transcript of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the two planes. The Kazak pilot says, "Good evening, 74 miles from Delhi." Ground control answers, "Descend 150," meaning 15,000 feet, "report reaching." The Kazak pilot responds, "150." Then the Saudi pilot is heard saying, "Approaching 100," meaning 10,000 feet. Ground control clears the Saudi pilot to 14,000 feet. Ground control tells the Saudi pilot to maintain 14,000 feet and stand by for a higher altitude. Controllers then ask the Kazak pilot for his distance from the airport. The Kazak pilot responds he is 46 miles away. Then ground control tells the Kazak pilot that the Saudi 747 is 14 miles away. "Report when in sight," the pilot is told. The Kazak pilot asks, "How many miles?". Ground control repeats, "14 miles now." The Kazak pilot says, "Roger, 1907," his flight number. Ground control says, "Traffic," meaning the Saudi jet is 13 miles at 14,000 feet. The Kazak pilot answers, "1907." Then nothing more is heard. At a press conference today in New Delhi, an Indian official said the pilots seemed to be aware of each other.
C.M. ABRAHIM, Indian Aviation Minister: Both the planes were aware of each other's approach, especially the Kazakhstan airline. It asked question on what is the distance now between us.
KWAME HOLMAN: Investigators searched amid widespread debris for remains and pieces of the two planes. The so-called "black boxes" were recovered, and it is hoped the flight data they contain can provide further clues into the cause of the crash.
JIM LEHRER: Now two perspectives on midair collisions. Jim Burnett is the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He's now a practicing attorney and transportation safety consultant in Little Rock. Michael Goldfarb is a former FAA chief of staff. He now runs an aviation consulting firm. First on the India crash, how do you interpret that exchange, Mr. Goldfarb, that Kwame Holman just read to us?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB, Former FAA Chief of Staff: Incomplete. Normally, in congested air space, when planes are that close together, the ground controller provides the same instructions to both sets of pilots. And from the transcript we saw, it was unclear whether both planes knew where they were. When you couple that with the fact that the ground radar didn't have the kind of modern sensors needed for the ground controller to understand where both planes were in the air space, you're creating a situation that raises questions, both about the communication and the role of the equipment in providing the final moments of flight.
JIM LEHRER: But just listening to that, or just reading that, did it say to you, hey, these planes are on a collision course?
MR. GOLDFARB: It doesn't say that, but, let's remember, in that region we have the fastest-growing air space in the world, the Indian air space, with 700 flights a day coming from the Pacific region to Europe. That airport alone--
JIM LEHRER: And how does that compare say with JFK or Chicago or--
MR. GOLDFARB: It doesn't compare, but it compares in contrast to where they were. Several years ago, they only had 100 flights a day--a week or--I believe it was a week. The airport alone has tripled the amount of air traffic. When you have that kind of congestion, that kind of growth in your traffic and you don't have that modern aviation infrastructure, modern radars, you don't have modern navigates, you're setting up conditions on the marketing of--
JIM LEHRER: Navigates mean navigation--
MR. GOLDFARB: Navigation equipment, sensors that tell planes where they are. So all those factors together create a condition where it makes it incumbent that the communication between pilot and controller is crisp and clear and unequivocal.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Burnett, you want to add or subtract anything from that on the New Delhi thing?
JIM BURNETT, Former NTSB Chairman: (Little Rock, Arkansas)
MR. BURNETT: Well, there was a broadcast to the Kazak plane that they were--that traffic was 12 o'clock reciprocal, and I think that--
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean? What does that mean?
MR. BURNETT: I interpret that--and I don't know that I've seen that language before--but I think it indicates that they were head on to each other. They probably--they were not advised, however, of the altitude of the oncoming plane. So I'm not sure that the pilots realized the criticality in the situation.
JIM LEHRER: And they were not advised because maybe the control tower did not know what their altitudes were?
MR. BURNETT: That's part of the problem is apparently there was no capability to display transponder data on the radar that the--that the air controllers were using. At least, that's the information that's coming out of India.
JIM LEHRER: We don't know yet obviously what happened in that particular case, but based on your past investigations, Mr. Burnett, and the fact that they did have the black boxes and the data recorders and the type of airplanes these were and there--there--the equipment that's aboard them, do you think that we will eventually find out what caused these two planes to crash into each other?
MR. BURNETT: Oh, I'm certain. I think there will be some debates over what factors were most important. Clearly, we already have an issue here of the capability of the equipment--of the air traffic control equipment--the radar, and about the procedures in an airport that had this heavy a traffic level.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Do you agree, Mr. Goldfarb, we will find out?
MR. GOLDFARB: Absolutely. I think we'll find out in relatively short order, unlike some other crashes where it really takes many, many months to find out. We have to be careful about the speculation about what caused the crash, but I think it's the combination of factors--the equipment, the people, the procedures, the language conditions. You know, the pilots talk their native language in flight and only when they talk to ground control do they talk in English in this case. Lots of issues around pilots, how well they understood the instructions, were those instructions metric, were they in feet, those kind of things will come out in the investigation.
JIM LEHRER: English is the international language of airport control, is that right?
MR. GOLDFARB: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: And everybody has to speak that language.
MR. GOLDFARB: Right. We had an example in the United States. I believe Mr. Burnett was at the board at that time, or maybe not, when Avianca in New York ran out of fuel, and the crew was talking in, I believe, in Spanish and was not communicating to the ground control in precise enough language in English to understand the requirements. So these are growing problems around the world when you have such an increase in air traffic.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Burnett, that the language problem is a problem?
MR. BURNETT: It is a problem, and it is a problem not only in India but around the world. And part of the problem is that in a crisis people tend to revert to the--to their native language, so that you have controllers who may speak Portuguese instead of English, or in this case, you could have had five or six languages involved, putting a communications problem. There's nothing on the transcript that suggests that, although I--
JIM LEHRER: In other words you had--you had a Kazak pilot and co-pilot in one plane. You had Saudis in another plane. You had Indians on the ground, and who--and then you had all kinds of other folks who could have been involved--flight controllers--
MR. BURNETT: The controllers may have had--their native languages may have been the same or different--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. BURNETT: And that could be also true of the Kazak pilots.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Well, Mr. Burnett, let me ask you this more general question. For those who fly more in the United States than they do internationally, particularly in and out of the New Delhi airport, the immediate question that came to mind when this news came to people who were on their way to airports say to get on airplanes--including me--I happened to be one of them yesterday, and I heard it on a car radio--that these two planes had collided--what is the situation in this country in terms of preventing this kind of thing? What kind of systems do we have in place?
MR. BURNETT: Well, we have a very good record. The Indian record is not enviable in terms of overall aviation safety. We do have a good record in this country, but we--we--there have been times when we could say that we've had ten recent near-misses in this country. So it's a matter of maintaining vigilance. I think progress is being made in advancing the level of technology within our air traffic control system, which is not what it should be. But it's--we have not gone as far as was expected at this date, and some reforms that are being made at the Federal Aviation Administration are designed to, in fact, make it possible to implement technological reform more rapidly.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Goldfarb, explain in language that we can all understand, that if a similar situation had--had occurred at a large American airport, comparable size American airport--would there be equipment or procedures in effect that could have--that might have prevented this from happening?
MR. GOLDFARB: Well, first of all, the separation standards are universal. They're worldwide, so the thousand feet vertical separation, the five miles on trail in that kind of air space are followed around the world. In the U.S., in most of our major facilities, I think Mr. Burnett's right, we have improvements to continue. We have modern--modern radars that will provide positive control anywhere in the United States in the entire air space, and that means that there are sensors that provide precise readings. There's very well trained air traffic controllers. There's been a lot of concern--do we have enough? We have a very well trained traffic controller force, and so we have margins of safety built in--in the equipment, in the training, and in the procedures. But I must tell you that given the budget problems that both--that the United States and other civil aviation authorities are facing, the question is, can we safely handle the traffic growth? And I think around the world we're seeing those pressures. In the United States we do not let more airplanes into the air space in New York, for example, than we can safely handle from a capacity standpoint in terms of how many planes can a controller handle. That means, as traffic grows, you'll experience delays at LaGuardia. You'll be held on the ground at JFK. You'll be held on the ground in National Airport before you'll be put in the air space in unsafe conditions, so we have the safety margins built in, but we need to modernize and upgrade, and there's, quite frankly, not enough money to do that.
JIM LEHRER: But would you agree, Mr. Burnett, that the problem is more of a capacity problem than it is a technology problem now potentially?
MR. BURNETT: Well, it's both. I think until we can make technological advances that will increase capacity, we have to be very careful. I certainly agree with Michael on this, that the safety of the system is based on our ability to control the--the amount of traffic in the system and to limit it to levels that can be handled. But that is--that's a much more difficult thing to do than it is to say, because the pressures from the airline community and from passengers who want to be able to fly where they want to, when they want to, and not to have delays caused by air traffic problems. So the FAA has to maintain discipline as far as letting too much traffic into the system at any given time or point.
JIM LEHRER: Someone suggested today, Mr. Burnett, that all midair collisions are the result of human error, just ipso facto, as they say in the legal business. Would you agree?
MR. BURNETT: Well, I think there must be systems in place to keep them from happening. The question is, is it human error? I don't think you can necessarily say at this point in our analysis of this accident that it's necessarily that some individual failed to do his job on this particular day. It may be systemic. It may be that the system was not properly designed to accommodate the--the traffic they had and at some point it was going to result in--in some sort of tragic failure. We can't point that to any individual. It's a policy issue.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.