Tenerife KLM, PanAm disaster remembered 40 years later

Tenerife memorial in Westgaarde
Tenerife memorial in Westgaarde. (Photo: NaturalHeaven1979 / Wikimedia Commons)

At 5:00 p.m. this afternoon it will be exactly 40 years since the worst airplane disaster to date happened on the Spanish island of Tenerife. On 27 March 1977 a KLM Boeing 747 collided on the runway at full speed with a PanAm Boeing. 583 people were killed in the crash, including everyone on the KLM flight, NOS reports. 

While the disaster was ultimately caused by the KLM starting without permission from the control tower, there were many factors which all culminated in the fatal crash, according to the broadcaster. These included a bomb threat at another airport resulting in many flights being moved to the small Tenerife airport, rising fog and muddled communication with the control tower. 

Since the disaster, there have been many improvements in air traffic. In the 70's some 2 thousand people died in aircraft accidents per year world wide. Between 2011 and 2015 the average number of fatalities was around 370, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association IATA. "The numbers speak for themselves. So the argument that flying is becoming safer, is correct", Joost van Doesburg of the Dutch pilots association VNV said to NOS.

Van Doesburg attributes the improvements mainly to a change in culture in the sector. Pilots, engineers and ground staff are allowed to make mistakes and to talk about them openly and honestly. "Mistakes are shared with the rest of the industry, so that everyone can learn from them. The culture - along with technical progress - led to this good result." Most accidents occur due to human error, Van Doesburg added. "Therefore the culture of sharing mistakes is so important. You should not hush up a mistake."

Incidentally, the IATA figures do not include the 298 victims who died in the MH17 disaster in July 2014. "To an outsider that might be a bit strange, but IATA uses certain criteria and MH17 falls outside it." Van Doesburg explains. MH17 was shot down deliberately over eastern Ukraine, and is therefore not considered an accident. The same goes for the German airplane that crashed when a pilot committed suicide and the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that is still missing.