Germanwings crash in the Alps: sick pilot a symptom of a sick industry

The news of the German pilot Andreas Lubitz flying the Germanwings Airbus 320 into a mountain in the French Alps came as a shock to the world. Although the official accident investigation is still in progress and will take months to complete, French authorities quickly made this into a criminal investigation and released certain information pointing the finger to the First Officer on board.

So far, it has been revealed that after the Captain left the flight deck, he was locked out of the cockpit by Lubitz, who subsequently descended the aircraft. The Captain can be heard asking to be let in, then attempting to bang down the door while Lubitz is silent. Investigators claim Lubitz was still alive until the moment of the crash because he can be heard breathing.

As soon as it became clear that this was not just a tragic accident, but a conscious and successful attempt by one of the pilots to destroy the aircraft and all its passengers on board, the plot all of a sudden thickened. Why would a young man like Lubitz do such a thing?

Nevertheless, it is not the first time pilot murder-suicide has occurred. In fact, less than two years ago almost exactly the same thing happened on Mozambique Airlines Flight 470, when an Embraer 190 began to lose altitude rapidly on a flight to Angola from Mozambique. The aircraft crashed in Bwabwata National Park in Namibia, with all 27 passengers and 6 crew members killed. According to the investigation report, Captain Herminio dos Santos Fernandes had a "clear intention" to crash the jet and changed its autopilot settings after the First Officer had been locked out of the cockpit.

Before that, in 1997 there was the case of SilkAir Flight 185, where the Captain nose-dived his aircraft into the Musi River in southern Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1999 all 217 passengers on board EgyptAir Flight 990 also died after a similar crash. Not all the causes of these events have been determined conclusively, but the primary theory is that they were murder-suicide, committed by one of the pilots.

Trust betrayed

Just like lone gunmen murdering their fellow classmates on campus, these kinds of acts are very hard to understand and to accept.

Probably more so than any other industry, aviation is built upon trust. The pilots trust the mechanics to do their jobs correctly, they trust the dispatchers who plan the flight, they trust the ATC controller handling the flight, they trust the security screeners to keep weapons off their aircraft, they trust the cabin crew to do their jobs properly and they trust the person in the other seat to be competent and responsible to operate the aircraft safely.

Equally there is the trust between the passenger and the pilots, whom they entrust their lives to. Aviation is one of the safest modes of transport, with the drive to the airport statistically being the riskiest part of the journey, but it understandably still produces a lot of anxiety amongst fliers. It is incumbent upon the aviation professional to ground him oir herself if he/she knows they don't meet the standards or requirements of his/her medical certificate, with or without a doctor's statement of fitness for duty. When this system of trust between pilot and passenger breaks down like it did here, this is a very bitter pill to swallow.

The present author is a commercial pilot and takes great pride in flying his passengers safely to their destination. We are trained very thoroughly to deal with all kinds of emergencies and are well aware of the great responsibility on our shoulders. When one of your colleagues commits a crime like this it brings the whole profession into disrepute. Long gone are the days of the pilot seen as “God”, but the risk is now that every pilot is seen as a potential mass murderer.

The law of unintended consequences

The aviation industry has changed a lot since 9/11. Security screenings at airports were stepped up to often ridiculous and frustrating levels, and inside the aircraft secure and impenetrable cockpit doors were installed to keep “the baddies” out. An unintended consequence of this is that pilots can be locked out as well, either by mechanical failure of the door mechanism or consciously by the remaining pilot. In 2012 a Jetblue Captain in the United States was locked out by his co-pilot because he exhibited erratic behaviour during the flight and had to be restrained by flight attendants and passengers. Here the secure door policy was a good thing, though it has to be said this was more because of excellent teamwork by all the crew involved, who ensured the flight landed safely.

The events of last week, however, proved that this cockpit door policy is a double-edged sword. Captain Patrick Sondheimer was locked out by his First Officer Andreas Lubitz. The rogue element was already on the inside.

Of course, in a PR attempt to be seen to be “doing something”, most airlines, worried about their profit margins and perceptions of the flying public, are now introducing a policy of always having two crew members on the flight deck (already common in the USA). This cheap and immediate measure seems a sensible policy at first sight, but clearly the law of unintended consequences applies here as well. What if the cabin crew member is the rogue member of staff, locks the door, restrains the remaining seated pilot and takes control of the aircraft to nose-dive it into the ground? Somebody with minimal screening on a zero hour contract? (the reality in low-cost airlines, where there is a high turn-over of cabin crew because of the poor working conditions).

LAXParkingLotHome1With regards to the door policy, it could very well be argued that the stick was bent too far the other way. As soon as Mohamed Atta and his accomplices hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 to crash the plane into the World Trade Center in 2001, that very act and its element of surprise made it very hard, if not impossible to ever commit this kind of attack again. The public is simply too vigilant now and as a collective on board would not allow it.

It is pointless to go into the technicalities of a closed vs. open door policy, toilets in the cockpit, biometric authentication, air marshals or even pilotless aircraft (what could possibly go wrong there?), because for every situation that you attempt to prevent, there is a different situation that can arise as a result of that solution.

Besides, to put it very bluntly, when you are at the controls of an aircraft and motivated to do so, for whatever reason, it is very easy to crash it. Even in normal situations with two busy pilots, a moment’s inattention or an incorrect control input during a critical phase of flight (such as take-off and landing) can very quickly end up in disaster. A deliberate contrary action could speed that up to almost instantaneous.

It is foolish to think you can regulate for all eventualities. This is not something that can be solved by putting in even more technology. It is a symptom of present society, and we need to address the problems in society.

Mental health

Not many hard facts are known about Lubitz’s mental health. The New York Times reports that he “had a medical condition that he hid from his employer.” Investigators found a doctor’s note at his home that would have excused him from work on the day of the crash, as well as another, ripped-up, note. German media are reporting that his training was interrupted in 2009 so he could receive treatment for depression. While his employers at Lufthansa have confirmed he took time off, it was not said why.

This is not the place to speculate in detail about the state of mind of Lubitz. Some accounts seem to indicate he was a perfectionist and set himself very important goals that could not be missed or changed. It is also quite possible that he was dealing with some personal issues to do with his relationship and his eyesight (no medical certificate, no job). Maybe there was a serious mismatch between what he always expected the job to be (long haul flying at the prestigious Lufthansa) and what it actually was (short haul hops with short turn-around for their low-cost daughter company Germanwings). Either way, the picture emerges of a disturbed young man who was at breaking point for one reason or another.

Like workers in all industries, pilots deal with personal tragedy and pressures at work or in their personal lives. When you are not fit to fly, physically or mentally, the expectation and regulations are to stay at home on the ground. It would be fair to say, however, that machismo is quite prevalent in aviation and most pilots would rather not fly because of a bad cold than admitting they are dealing with mental health problems.

The culture within the aviation industry has changed for the better in the last few decades. Crew resource management (CRM), reliable aircraft and automation have made aviation a very safe industry. “Human factors” is a well-established concept now that recognises the challenges associated with humans operating a complex machine. It is not in the scope of this article to go into details about any of this, but suffice to say the aviation industry has come a long way in the last 40 years and has left the dark ages.

Nevertheless, mental health issues are still an enormous taboo within the industry. One glaring problem is that most pilots who made it past all the hurdles they had to get through to sit in that seat (ability, financial, relocating, finding a job), would do anything to keep their job. Apart from grieving and going through a divorce, it is not an insignificant risk to admit to your colleagues and employer that you are dealing with issues that are not of a physical nature. The fear of losing your job is very real and can be paralysing.

Commercial pilots are required to have a Class 1 medical certificate, which has to be renewed every year (and more regularly the older you get). This is on top of the 6-monthly proficiency check in the simulator, where an examiner assesses whether you are up to your job. Fail or lose any of those and it can quickly be the end of your career and your livelihood. Very few other industries are as regulated as aviation, but it does mean a certain amount of stress and anxiety are part and parcel of it.

Naturally, airlines select candidates who can deal with those stresses and pressures. For that matter, Lubitz was a product of Lufthansa Flight Training, a prestigious institution that uses the infamous DLR test. This Flight Aptitude and Skills Test is one of the hardest selection procedures in the industry and has a very low pass rate. However, as all current selection procedures, they do not check for mental illness. Sure, psychological profiles are checked, but those simply determine if someone fits into the job and company, not if he or she has a mental illness (as if this would be possible anyway).

Currently, when a pilot is suffering from one of a multitude of situations which is impairing them mentally, from fatigue (very common) to a specific mental condition, there is no adequate support system in place. The perception is that we will be out the door and back on the dole with no hope of returning to work. This is not conducive to the best possible mental state for those sitting at the controls to do their job correctly.

Shattered dreams

Mention to people that you are a pilot and they think you must have a wonderful job and are very rich. Think again. The reality for most young pilots who got their commercial licence and Instrument Rating is that unless they saved up over the years whilst working another job or have wealthy parents sponsoring them, they will be in debt up to 100,000 Euros or more.

Then comes the stress of actually finding work in a job market that is oversaturated. A very sizeable part of those who get their qualifications will never make it to the flight deck. Too many candidates, not enough jobs. Recruitment has been stagnant since the recession in 2008. The majority of pilots have had to put themselves through extreme financial difficulty just to get an interview, where the odds of passing often are not particularly great. And if you are one of the lucky ones to find that first job, chances are it will be with a low-cost airline like Ryanair sweeping up the European market. In that case you’d better find another 30,000 Euros to pay for your Type Rating on the Boeing 737-800 because long gone are the days when an employer would actually pay for that part of the training. Then be prepared to set up your own “company” through which you offer your “services” on a self-employed basis (no sick pay, pension or guaranteed hours/income), to be sent to any of their bases all over Europe, to be bullied by management and to be worked to the maximum that is legally possible. Don’t like it? Thousands of others are ready to take your place.

Yes, it can still be a very rewarding job and even at low-cost airlines, once you pass the initial hurdles a lot of people end up doing reasonably well for themselves, certainly when they manage to move on to the legacy carriers like British Airways or Aer Lingus on proper contracts. Equally many people fall by the wayside, never find a flying job, lose their hard earned skills and are forced to seek employment outside aviation.

If you happen to live on the other side of the pond, you will be instructing in little Cessnas in the USA until you have at least 1500 flying hours, then move onto the regional airlines, where in some airlines you will barely earn a minimum wage. Who wants to be flown by a pilot making $20,000 a year?  Next to Los Angeles International Aiport there are even parking lots with mobile homes that are home to pilots and mechanics since the commute back home would be too long. Glamorous? Not exactly. Fatigue inducing and morale crippling? Definitely.

In the last ten years or so the phenomenon of “Pay to fly” has rubbed even more salt into the wounds. Here we have the absurd situation where desperate people with too much money and too little sense actually pay an airline to sit at the controls in the flight deck. Companies like Eagle Jet are a parasite in the industry preying on people who cannot find a flying job and who have deals with certain airlines to offer “line training” (something that is part of the job) and blocks of flying hours (typically 100 to 500, with prices up to $60,000). Once you have done your hours you may actually get a contract and start earning a wage a year or more down the line, but that is by no means guaranteed. This France 2 report about Pay to Fly is highly instructive and should be viewed by every passenger to get an idea of what the aviation industry has become.

A growing cancer

The truth is, a cancer has been eating away for quite some time at the aviation industry as a whole. Low cost airlines have initiated a race to the bottom and through sheer market forces legacy carriers have been forced to follow suit. In order to understand how it came to this we have to go back a few decades.

In most of Western Europe most flying jobs were with national government-owned unionised flag carriers. They were the standard bearers, worldwide ambassadors and advertisers for their countries. Great pride was taken in them, by them and by their employees. It was a coveted position and very well paid.

Later came the charter/holiday carriers, some of whom survived, while many others went bankrupt or were taken over. In all aspects it was still a respected and well remunerated profession, with standards in services and terms and conditions that were well understood by all.

Then came privatisation and the governments sold their investments to public shareholders. Now profit was the only parameter. Lo and behold, it was discovered that this was a vocational industry; people would sell their grandmothers for a step on the ladder, and pay to do it. The accountants couldn't believe their luck and the cancer started to spread. This was at a time when the market was deregulated and anyone could start up an airline flying from anywhere in EU to anywhere in the EU. Cut price was the answer. Dog eat dog became the mentality. Pilots became commodities.

The expansion of the EU into poorer countries helped this race to the bottom, with traffic going both ways. Holiday models changed from traditional longer holidays to short breaks and spontaneous trips. The major airlines suffered and had to respond. They saw that crews would accept lower terms and conditions in the upcoming companies and so they imposed cuts on their own staff.

Interestingly, this process is still going on within Lufthansa itself. Lufthansa is a traditional national carrier but in order to stay competitive in a cut-throat market, it was forced to branch out and develop a low cost subsidiary, Germanwings. Between the Lufthansa and Germanwings brands there are different collective bargaining agreements, which to this day are being opposed by the pilots’ union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) and which led to several strikes last year and as recently as last month.

Pressure cooker

It is unclear how much Lubitz was aware or involved in all of this. What is clear is that he lived in this social context and became socially alienated to a pathological level. Was it a feeling of lack of control over his own life and future? A hopelessness about nobody caring for him that he could no longer bear? We will probably never know.

We believe it is more useful to provide a general framework of the current state of the aviation industry than what is being spouted in the mass media about this tragedy. It has never been much in the public eye, but pressure has been building up for quite a while now. Morale is at rock bottom in most airlines. Unions are either non-existent or powerless to stem the tide, never mind offer an alternative that can inspire their members (we would suggest taking a good look at London tube drivers). What was once one of the best careers to aspire to is now quickly becoming a laughing stock. Why would anyone bother going through all this drama when the public perception is of a pilot just pushing a few buttons “as these things fly themselves anyway” (nothing could be further from the truth) in some cases to earn less than a train driver?

The point is not to empathise with Lubitz or justify his actions, despicable as they are, but to try and understand why a human being might act this way, so that people can then try to ensure it does not happen so easily again. Within aviation in the last few decades, this has been the goal of aircraft accident investigations: not to apportion blame to any particular individual, but to try to uncover a chain of events in order to draw the lessons. Rather than just throwing our arms in the air and declaring Lubitz was a “madman” or a “rotten apple” living in a social vacuum, our aim should be a lot higher. As such, we cannot see this event in isolation but have to see it within the context of the degeneration of the aviation industry in particular and the prevailing malaise in society in general. This in turn cannot be seen separate from this capitalist system, where ordinary working people are mere commodities being sacrificed on the altar of profit.