Air Traffic Overhaul Not to Blame, EU Says

A European Union official is denying that this year's radical overhaul of Europe's air traffic management, which halved the minimum distances between aircraft, was to blame for the collision in midair of two planes over Germany. 

"There's no link here," said Gilles Gantelet, a spokesman for the EU's executive commission. "The problem is that the plane wasn't where it was supposed to be. The only way to change that was in asking the plane to change route." 

A Russian charter jet filled with children headed for a vacation in Spain slammed into a cargo plane in midair, killing more than 70 people in southern Germany late Monday. 

Six new flight levels were created Jan. 24 for airliners cruising at high altitude — above 29,000 feet — by cutting the minimum vertical distance required between planes from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet. 

The changes, covering nations stretching from North Africa to the Arctic, were made possible because of improved altitude-measuring instruments that allow planes to fly closer safely at high altitude, said Eurocontrol, an organization providing technical support to Europe's national air traffic control systems. It called the changes the most radical in 50 years. 

In a statement Eurocontrol said both aircraft were "well within limits" of the new elevation system. 

"Based on the available information, there is currently nothing to indicate that the introduction of ... reduced vertical separation ... was in any way a factor in this accident," Eurocontrol said, adding that both planes were equipped with airborne collision avoidance systems. 

The EU is currently working on plans to introduce a single, EU-wide air traffic control system to replace the current mosaic of national operations. 

Gantelet said it was too early to determine whether the "single sky" plan would have helped prevent the crash. The planes that collided over southern Germany were being handled by air traffic controllers in Switzerland, which is not part of the EU. 

In January officials said the new flight levels would reduce congestion and save $3.86 billion a year by cutting delays and fuel costs. 

Eurocontrol said the changes will enable air traffic controllers to handle up to 20 percent more planes without compromising safety. 

Airlines and the International Airline Passengers Association had welcomed the move. 

The narrower gap has been used on flights across the North Atlantic since 1997, and is also the rule over the Pacific Ocean and in Australia. 

Eurocontrol said changes were needed since air traffic has grown on average by 7.4 percent a year since 1980, resulting in congestion that means only one flight in three leaves on time in Europe.