The Germanwings Flight Was Deliberately Crashed — What Happens to Air Travel Now?
With confirmation by European officials that Germanwings Flight 9525, which crashed Tuesday in the French alps, was deliberately brought down by its co-pilot, questions are swirling about how the tragedy could have happened, and what happens now.
As Mic previously reported, French prosecutor Brice Robin was quoted in the Telegraph saying that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, "voluntarily refused to open the door of the cockpit to the pilot and voluntarily began the descent of the plane."
So what factors need to be considered in this case and what changes could potentially be made to prevent a similar incident in the future?
The cockpit. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, largely caused by cockpit breach, securing the pilot's sanctum became a priority. New rules instituted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2002 bulked up security and required that "cockpit doors remain locked" and that "an internal locking device be designed so that it can only be unlocked from inside the cockpit." In the event a pilot needs to use the restroom, U.S. regulations require a flight attendant to wait in the cockpit until their return.
"There are always two people in control," Rich Roth, the executive director of CTI Consulting, which provides security consulting, told Mic. "It's not foolproof, but it is one more stop in the way." U.S. flight attendant Heather Poole backed him up on Twitter.
According to the BBC, Germany's aviation authority, the Luftfahrt Bundesamt, does not make such explicit requirements and allows a pilot to be left alone in the cockpit for brief periods. Lacking any evidence of a struggle, it appears that Lubitz merely took control of the plane while the other pilot, "Patrick S.", stepped away, perhaps to use the bathroom. When Lubitz locked the cockpit from the inside and began his descent, the plane was doomed.
Roth said that a thorough review of cockpit safety procedures in Europe was likely to follow and that it was highly probable that the U.S. FAA protocols would be adopted.
Going further, one might envision reforms that allow ground control from the flight's point of origin to electronically override cockpit locks in the event of an emergency, or restrooms attached to the cockpit that did not require the main door to be opened. Another idea, though pilots have fought against it for years, would be the introduction of cameras in the cockpit so problems could be spotted before they became emergencies.
The co-pilot. Andreas Lubitz, 28, was a relatively new pilot, with only 630 hours of flying time under his belt. After the crash, the flying club he had been a member of released a statement saying "Andreas became a member of the club as a youth to fulfill his dream of flying."
However, images of a mild 20-something chasing his dreams were contradicted by local German sources, according to the Telegraph. The mother of a school classmate told the Frankfurter Allgemeine that Lubitz had been a "burnout" and that he had been suffering from "depression." The report also revealed that Lubitz had taken a months-long leave of absence during his flight training, an absence that Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr refused to elaborate on.
"We don't have psychological exams," Spohr was quoted in USA Today as saying. If Lubitz had been suffering from depression or some other psychological ailment, he likely would have had to "self-report" his condition. While not an everyday occurrence, midair mental breakdowns among pilots are more common than you might think. It happened to a JetBlue pilot in 2012, and during an Air Canada flight in 2008.
It's hard to say whether mandated psychological evaluations would have detected the threat Lubitz posed. He had been in a relationship, and another friend described him as "a nice young man." Spohr himself attested that the co-pilot was "100% fit to fly." In the end, Lubitz was hired and neither the plane nor the pilot had any mechanism to respond once he made his fatal choice.
The groups converged on the small French town of Le Vernet, the closest inhabited area to the crash site. A population of 130 had been preparing to receive the grieving families, who were expected to visit the crash site near the tiny alpine enclave on Thursday.
If past precedent is any guide, the Germanwings crash is certain to spark a firestorm of litigation.
According to the Montreal Convention, a set of rules and procedures that govern international flight protocol that has been signed by over 100 nations, Germanwings will almost certainly be on the hook for an enormous degree of financial damages.
"There is no cap on liability if it can be shown that the agent of the carrier's wrongdoing resulted in the loss," Abram Bohrer, a principal at Bohrer and Lukeman, a law firm which specializes in airline injury, told Mic. "Cases that have been filed in the United States ... have resulted in seven-figure recoveries." Bohrer, however, was quick to add that overseas settlements were often smaller.
The rules will also vary for the six flight crew killed in the crash, whom Bohrer said were not covered under the convention.
Going forward. No amount of money will bring back friends and relatives. While financial settlements are necessary and will help replace lost income, a more lasting way to compensate families would be to make sure tragedies like this never happen again. A nuanced approach to cockpit security — not just adding locks — is required, as well as more robust contingencies in the event a pilot is compromised. Some have suggested even more radical solutions:
Captain Patrick S. banged on the cockpit door of his plane for almost 10 minutes, completely powerless, as his co-pilot steered him and his passengers to their deaths. The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 was a deliberate act of sabotage that didn't have to happen. We have an obligation to the victims and ourselves to make sure something similar never happens again.