Out of control

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An airplane takes off from the Da Nang International  Airport in central Vietnam on April 9. Vietnamese experts are calling for stricter measures to ensure air safety after many incidents of air traffic controller incompetence have come to light.

It was only when the captain of  Vietnam Airlines flight VNA1511 alerted him for a second time that an air traffic controller ordered him to descend to a lower altitude, averting a potential disaster.

The incident happened on October 14 near the waypoint VILAO in the sky above central Vietnam when the captain, who was not identified, detected another plane some 10 kilometers (6.4 miles) away.

He was piloting the flight from Hanoi to Da Nang while the other airplane was only identified as belonging to a foreign airline, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported. The name and route were not disclosed.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV), flight safety is threatened if two planes are less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart. At this point, the radar system begins to issue warnings.

The common speed of civil airplanes in Vietnam is around 15 kilometers per minute.

Last week, the CAAV announced that it had revoked the license of the air traffic controller in the above incident and suspended the license of the manager on duty for two months. Three other people on duty at the time have been fined. Their identities were not disclosed.

Although there has been no civil aviation accident in Vietnam in two decades, mistakes caused by air traffic controllers still persist and local experts say that to maintain air traffic safety in the country, there is an urgent need for qualitative improvements in the staff and system, and for tougher punishments of violations.

Currently, flights in Vietnam are regulated by more than 500 air traffic controllers of the Vietnam Air Traffic Management Corporation, operating in its northern, central and southern centers.

Last year, the controllers oversaw 420,121 flights, a 17 percent increase over 2010.

The CAAV estimates that the number of flights in Vietnam will increase to 491,000 this year.

Scared stiff

On March 14, a female air traffic controller at the Southern Region Air Traffic Service was too scared and unable to give instructions in a situation that could have led to a collision, VTC News reported.

The online newspaper cited an unnamed source as saying that "the traffic air controller in charge was scared stiff and unable to say a word when she found that the two planes could collide in a few dozen seconds.

"Another controller had to snatch the microphone from her hand to issue an emergency alert for the planes to change direction and altitude to avoid each other," the source said.

The flights, Singapore Airlines's SIA176 from Singapore to Hanoi and Hainan Airlines's CHH485 from Hainan to Singapore, were at the same altitude of FL340, about ten kilometers, and both were reaching the waypoint BITOD, located about 170 kilometers southwest of the southernmost province of Ca Mau.

Bui Van Vo, head of the flight division at CAAV, told VTC News that the radar system issued a warning when the two planes were 30 miles from each other and it was a "normal" warning for the controller to issue timely instructions.

However, he said he could not confirm whether the air traffic controller had taken fright, because there was no "relevant evidence."

Human factor

Commenting on the workload of air traffic controllers, a CAAV representative who wanted to remain anonymous said it can be said that they are overloaded.

"It depends on each individual. Some controllers can direct up to 20 flights but some others make mistakes when directing only two flights," he said.

William Voss, President and CEO of the Virginia-based NGO Flight Safety Foundation, said that based on International Civil Aviation Organization's statistics, air traffic density in Vietnam is at a moderate level.

"One thing that seems unsettling is the punitive approach described regarding controller error... Normally punishment is reserved for rather clear cut cases of negligence," Voss told Vietweek.

"More typical ATC human errors are typically met with a more measured response that looks at all aspects of the controllers training and environment," he said.

"In air traffic control it is extremely important to encourage error reporting since it is the only way management can be made aware of emerging hazards before accidents occur. This does not appear to be the management practice in Vietnam," he said.

"It is impossible to reduce human error punishment. Punishment has the opposite effect. It drives error underground and further compromises safety."

While controllers should be held accountable for deliberate acts, "punishment of legitimate error is a disastrous policy," Voss said.

He said besides adopting new navigational procedures that take full advantage of the technology in modern aircraft, relevant authorities in Vietnam should focus on the qualification of air traffic controllers.

"In the US, fewer than one percent of applicants even qualify for initial air traffic control training, and many of those do not successfully complete the training which may continue for four or more years," he said, adding that most people do not have the aptitude for the profession and even those with the aptitude require a great deal of training.

An employee of the Southern Region Aviation Service (SRAS), who wanted to remain anonymous, said a controller's schedule is not heavy at all
and each has a break of between 1-2 hours after every two hours
of work. The quality of human resources in the problem,
he said. 

"There are not many controllers who can work with a microphone to give instructions. But the number of people whom the managers do not dare to assign that job to is abundant," he told Vietweek, adding in the latter group are mostly children or relatives of people with high positions or having "a certain influence."

Asked what should be done to improve air traffic control, he said, "for sure the recruitment of good staffers but it is impossible." He said a new air traffic controller's salary is more than VND10 million (US$480) per month.

The nation's per capita income in 2011 was about $1,300.

However, the SRAS employee said, several incidents in the recent past are not so dangerous as they are being made out to be in media reports, because in addition to air traffic control, there are warning systems in airplanes and the pilots are in control of the situation.

"It is not that there has been an increase in the number of incidents, but more of them are coming to light because of a new regulation requiring them to be reported to the CAAV," he said.

Stricter measures

Nguyen Trong Thang, the CAAV's chief inspector, said the agency is drafting a new document to replace a 2010 decree on handling violations in the aviation sector that will include stricter punishments for incompetent air traffic controllers and those who violate regulations.

Nguyen The Truyen of the Hanoi Bar Association said violations in the aviation sector, including those committed by air traffic controllers, can be treated as crimes under the Penal Code.

"However, Vietnamese prosecution agencies have not charged any air traffic controller so far. Violators have only faced administrative measures," he said.

Nguyen Van Hau, vice chairman of the HCMC Jurists' Association, said although air accidents are not common like those on road, the consequences are very serious when they do happen.

"The current fines for violations by air traffic controllers, of up to VND5 million ($240), is too lenient."

If an air traffic controller is found committing many violations, stronger deterrents are necessary, he said.

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