A German court ruled on Thursday that Germany wrongly subcontracted its airspace control to a private firm and was liable for a 2002 crash between a Russian passenger jet and a cargo plane that killed 71 people.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Bashkirian Airlines over the mid-air collision involving a Bashkirian plane and a DHL cargo aircraft over the German village of Ueberlingen close to the Swiss border.
The court said Germany breached its constitution by subcontracting airspace control to private Swiss firm Skyguide and Germany was responsible for compensation for the crash.
"The sovereign task of securing air space has never been effectively transferred to Switzerland," the court said in its ruling.
"This means Germany cannot say that it should be Skyguide's liability," the court added on its web site.
Germany's Transport Ministry declined to comment immediately on the possible implications of the ruling on air traffic control procedures.
On July 1, 2002, Skyguide was operating with a single air traffic controller who told the pilot of the Russian Tupolev plane to descend to avoid a collision, even though early-warning instruments aboard the plane had told the pilots to climb.
The DHL Boeing 757's automatic anti-collision system also instructed its pilots to descend to the same level.
The plane's tail fin sliced open the Russian passenger jet and both aircraft disappeared from radar screens 15 seconds later. Sixty-nine people on the Russian jet, most of them children, as well as two pilots on the German plane were killed.
Skyguide operated with "severe organizational deficiencies" while controlling air space over much of southern Germany, the court said.
"This would have led eventually to the overload of the only air traffic controller working at the time and ultimately would have caused the collision between the planes," the court said.
It added that it had not yet decided on the amount of compensation to be paid to Bashkirian Airlines for the crashed plane which was flying from Moscow to Barcelona.