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Spanish report: Finnair pilots too slow to take action

Spanish air traffic control officials have reprimanded Finnair pilots for being too slow to take evasive action to avoid another craft back in 2011. Part of the reason for the near crash was a radar malfunction in the air traffic control tower.

Finnairin (pun.) ja Thomas Cook Airlinesin (vihr.) lentokoneiden etäisyys toisistaan.
Finnairin (pun.) ja Thomas Cook Airlinesin (vihr.) lentokoneiden etäisyys toisistaan. Image: Espanjan ilmailuhallinto

A freshly-published report by Spanish air traffic control officials investigated a near-collision at Tenerife airport in 2011. The case involved a Finnair Boeing 757 and a similar craft operated by Thomas Cook Airlines, each carrying more than 200 passengers.

At one point in their descent trajectories, the distance between the aircraft was as little as 1.7 kilometres.

“Although the planes breached the normal separation distance, they were in no real danger because in these situations the avoidance systems provide guidelines for the pilots to take evasive action,” said Finnair communications chief Arja Suominen.

However according to the report, Spanish officials felt that the Finnair pilots had not reacted quickly enough.

Dodge command always overrides control tower’s instructions

The Finnair plane was beginning its descent to the Tenerife airport at the same time as the Thomas Cook aircraft. The control tower said the radar suffered a sudden malfunction which prevented controllers from distinguishing one craft from the other.

As a result, the control tower initially misinterpreted the landing avoidance system. For a moment controllers could not tell which plane was at a higher altitude.

The warning systems on both vessels were operating normally and instructed the pilots to take evasive action.  All commercial aircraft are fitted with a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which helps them to track the flight path of nearby planes.

If two planes fly dangerously close to each other, the system gives a cockpit warming and provides pilot with guidelines for evasive action, if needed. Such guidelines always supersede instructions from tower control.

Spanish air traffic control officials advised Finnair to step up pilot training to prevent a recurrence of such a situation.

“Finnair analysed the incident immediately following the flight and we have also reviewed the official report. We are prepared for various emergency situations and we practice evasive actions in annual training sessions according to regulations,” said Finnair flight safety and quality director Antti Aukia.

The report also rapped Tenerife flight control over the knuckles, calling on airport officials to better prepare for similar situations and to learn to recognise equipment malfunctions.

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