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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010

Air traffic controllers' guilty verdicts final

Kyodo News

The Supreme Court has finalized the suspended sentences of two air traffic controllers convicted of professional negligence over a 2001 near miss involving two Japan Airlines jumbo jets.

They are the first air traffic controllers to be held criminally responsible for a near collision. Yasuko Momii, 41, ended up with a suspended 18-month sentence and Hideki Hachitani, 36, was given a suspended 12-month term. Both were also fired.

They had earlier been acquitted by the Tokyo District Court, but the Tokyo High Court ruled in April 2008 that they made a control error that led to the incident over the Pacific that left 57 passengers on one of the jetliners injured.

They filed an appeal that was rejected, and on Friday the Supreme Court nixed their objection to that decision.

Hachitani was under Momii's supervision at the Tokyo Air Traffic Control Center in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, at the time of the Jan. 31, 2001, incident, in which the two aircraft, carrying some 700 people combined, came within 10 meters of colliding.

The near miss occurred off Shizuoka Prefecture. One of the planes was JAL Flight 907, a Boeing 747 bound for Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, from Tokyo and the other was JAL Flight 958, a DC-10 bound for Narita International Airport from Busan, South Korea.

Hachitani mixed up the flight numbers when he was giving instructions to the two planes and mistakenly instructed a climbing Flight 907, instead of Flight 958, to descend to avoid a collision between the two aircraft. Momii, who was supervising Hachitani at the time, failed to notice the mistake.

Flight 907 went into a radical descent, leaving 57 passengers injured. The controllers' instructions contradicted the collision warning system orders issued aboard both jets.

The Supreme Court ruled in October that Hachitani's error in mixing up the flight numbers and Momii's failure to notice were highly dangerous acts that could have led to a collision. The court ruled the two had knowledge to foresee the threat, but their concurrent negligence caused the near miss.

In March 2006, the Tokyo District Court found them innocent, saying the accident collision was caused by multiple factors, but the ruling was overturned by the high court.

A lawyer for Momii and Hachitani said the Supreme Court's rejection of their appeal is "extremely regrettable," adding that holding air traffic controllers criminally liable "won't do any good in terms of preventing accidents."

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