WASHINGTON -- The pilots of a Colombian jetliner that ran out of fuel and crashed last year on Long Island, N.Y., were mainly to blame for the accident because they never declared an emergency when talking to air traffic controllers, the National Transportation Safety Board determined yesterday.
Had they done so, the controllers would have expedited the plane's landing and avoided the accident, which killed 73 of the 158 people on board the Boeing 707, including both pilots, the independent federal investigative agency said.
But the board also criticized the Federal Aviation Administration, saying it had contributed to the accident by allowing air traffic to Kennedy International Airport to build up so much that day amid worsening weather that long delays were inevitable.
Avianca Flight 52, the plane that crashed on Jan. 25, 1990, was kept circling for nearly an hour and a half off the Atlantic seaboard, which cut into its fuel reserves during the trip from Colombia to New York.
The safety board, turning aside complaints by the airline and the Colombian government, decided not to criticize FAA controllers for failing to rush the plane to the ground as soon as its pilots first mentioned that they were running out of fuel, nearly an hour before the plane crashed.
In that radio call, the pilots asked for "priority" treatment. As a result, the controllers gave them permission to leave the holding pattern and proceed normally to the airport.
The safety board concurred yesterday with the aviation agency's arguments that it was up to the pilots to declare an emergency explicitly under the circumstances.
"The flight crew did not adequately communicate its increasingly critical fuel situation to the controllers who handled the flight," the board said. It called the controllers' actions "proper and responsive," since they "did not understand that an emergency situation existed."
The question of whether controllers should have done more was debated throughout the investigation.
Less than a month after the crash, the safety board, calling faulty communications a chronic problem, urged controllers and pilots alike to use more explicit language in discussing potential problems and added, "Air traffic controllers should question flight crews when there is any indication that flight safety may be compromised."
But the board turned down a suggestion yesterday by one of its members, Jim Burnett, that a similar statement be included in its final report on the accident.
Mr. Burnett said that if the controllers had sought more information from the pilots of the plane at the first mention that fuel was running out, they "might easily have avoided this accident."
Other members of the safety board were not as ready as Mr. Burnett to criticize the aviation agency.
Representatives of Avianca have said that air controllers also might have contributed to the accident by failing to warn the jet's pilots of gusty winds at the airport. They had difficulty landing on the first try and were circling widely for a second approach when the jet ran out of fuel.