Lessons Learned from the Tenerife Airport Disaster

Traveling by aircraft is one of the safest modes of transportation, however, that has not always been the case. From the beginnings of aviation, until only a few decades ago, a significant number of lives have been lost in various aircraft accidents. However, it is from these accidents, that today’s aviation has become one of the safest and most convenient modes of transportation available around the world.

One of the worst airline disasters the world has ever seen happened on March 27, 1977, when two large passenger aircraft collided on the runway on the island of Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands.
A series of miscommunications between the two flight crews and Air Traffic Control coupled with heavy fog that made it impossible for the two aircraft to maintain visual contact with each other resulted in the massive collision and intense fire that claimed the lives of 583 people on both aircraft and remains the deadliest aircraft accident ever.

The Tenerife disaster was the accumulation of a series of untimely coincidences, bad luck, an overcrowded airport, severe weather, language problems, human error and wrong decisions by one of the captains which have changed how flights operate forever.

Aviation Industry Changes After the Tenerife Disaster

As a result of this accident, a number of operational changes and safety regulations were made for all international airlines and now forms an essential part of a pilot’s training.

First, the international aviation authorities placed an emphasis on using the English language as the common working language for all international air traffic control interactions. New regulations also instructed pilots and air traffic control personnel to use standardized English phrases when exchanging information between flights.

This ‘Aviation English’ library contains approximately 300 words that the pilots are required to use in communications and specific instructions on when and how to use them. This has eliminated certain words that could be misinterpreted based on the reference of the communication. Pilots are also required to readback the key parts of any communications or instructions to show a mutual understanding of the messages exchanged.

New cockpit procedures were also implemented for the hierarchy of the authority in the cabin, putting a greater emphasis on team decision making throughout the entire aircraft crew, instead of the captain in charge making all of the decisions in the cockpit.

Known as “Crew Resource Management,” this enables an open environment where all crew members are encouraged and given the power to challenge anything that they believe to be incorrect, and it is the captain’s responsibility to listen and evaluate all decisions based on the crew’s concerns. This training is now standard policy for all airline pilots worldwide.

Human Factors Influences

As with all aviation accidents and incidents, there is usually never one single factor that can be traced to be the cause, but it is usually a series of events that lead to the contribution in most accidents.

The Tenerife Disaster, among other high-profile aviation accidents that took place in the late 1970s, prompted government and aviation agencies to investigate the causes that human errors created in the accidents and provided resources and developed training programs centered around those errors to increase overall safety and performance throughout the industry.

These ’Human Factors’ programs have been a mandatory part of all aviation training of not only pilots, but also flight attendants, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers, ground support personnel, and aviation manufacturers and suppliers.



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