So in the end it took a week until another task force was created: a week of intense, unprecedented media coverage of the March 24 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps, which was likely deliberately caused by the first officer, a 27-year-old with a long (previously unknown) history of depressive and suicidal tendencies. The German government set up the body, as it said, to enhance aviation safety, with concrete measures in mind: one government, overseeing a few airlines, looking at unilateral initiatives. Sounds as familiar as stupid.
A quick look back to Feb. 14, 2014. That day, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767-300 was en route from Addis Ababa to Rome operating as Flight 702. At one point during cruise, the captain left the cockpit to use the lavatory. The first officer did not allow him back inside and hijacked the aircraft. At this point he could have done anything with the airliner. He could have crashed the 767 into a crowded square in London, Paris or Berlin. Instead, he decided to fly wide circles over Geneva and finally land there to request political asylum. No injuries. The world forgot.
Yes, Flight 9525 ended in tragedy and ET702 did not. They are vastly different in public perception and attention, but in both cases one of the pilots managed to take control of the aircraft because a decade earlier, secure cockpit doors were introduced that cannot be opened against the will of the person left in the cockpit.
That is the one discussion the industry and regulators should have had more than a year ago, or after the Nov. 13, 2013, crash of a Lineas Aereas de Mocambique Embraer 190 that was in all likelihood caused by the captain committing suicide: 33 people died. That the debate did not happen back then is cynical, but now that it is taking place the danger is the wrong conclusions will be drawn.
That secure cockpit doors should be relinquished, as some are seriously suggesting, is nonsense. There are still more than enough valid reasons for the cockpit to be a protected space; the threat from terrorists trying to use aircraft as weapons does not seem to have decreased over the past decade.
It took German air transport industry association BDL and air transport authority LBA three days to decide that a minimum of two people have to be in the cockpit at all times, effective immediately, with no serious discussion. That decision came even faster in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and was widely followed by individual airlines in Europe even when their own regulatory authorities did not request it.
While there are no obvious downsides to the new occupancy rule, its advantages are also less obvious than at first sight. Would a flight attendant really stop a pilot committed to downing an aircraft? Probably not. Could a committed flight attendant with access to knives in the galley be a potential safety threat to the pilot left in the cockpit? Maybe.
The moves are clearly based on rushed judgments made under enormous public pressure. It would have been much better to defer any move, then discuss and decide when emotions no longer dictated the course of action.
If anything, the industry needs to look at whether cockpits should continue to be so secure that they cannot be entered under reasonable circumstances. Right now, the pilot remaining at the controls can relock the door from inside even when the emergency code is entered on the keypad outside, the idea being that a hijacker might force a flight attendant to reveal the code to gain access. When secure doors were introduced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the possibility of pilot suicide was not considered. It was taken for granted that pilots would never do something like that.
The assumption was wrong. But one still needs to put things into perspective. There have been a handful of events that can be linked to pilots intentionally crashing aircraft. But that’s in hundreds of millions of flights since the late 1990s. Pilot suicides are extremely rare and before any decisions are made about measures to prevent them, a detailed analysis of potential consequences must be conducted.
A lot of the public debate in Germany has focused on whether Germanwings and its parent Lufthansa should have known more. Andreas Lubitz interrupted his pilot training in 2008 because of a severe depressive episode, but he resumed his education and passed all tests.