James Shillinglaw | April 02, 2015 1:00 PM ET
Travel Insights: Beyond the Lessons of the Germanwings Disaster
We learned this week that Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of the Germanwings Flight 9525, which plunged into a French mountain on March 24, had severe psychological problems that may have led him to commit suicide, along with killing all 150 passengers and crew onboard.
Apparently there was a trail of documents showing Lubitz's psychological disorder that should have led to his grounding or even his dismissal—if the airline, a regional unit of Lufthansa, had known about them. And how could a single pilot manage to lock himself in the cockpit without another person in place who could do something if that pilot became incapacitated?
Is anybody else surprised that a major airline doesn't require a stringent set of psychological tests to make sure its pilots aren't crazy when they fly? And aren’t there policies in place to prevent deranged pilots from locking themselves in the cockpit?
For that matter, what are the policies of U.S. airlines in terms of having at least two people in the cockpit at all times? A number of U.S. carriers were quick to assure their passengers that they do have procedures in place to identify pilots with psychological problems and make sure two people are in the cockpit at all times. Does anyone remember the case of the JetBlue pilot who went a little batty while on a flight back on March 27, 2012? He just sued JetBlue saying the airline should have prevented him from flying! So maybe those policies are not in place.
I guess what's most alarming about the Germanwings tragedy is that it might have been prevented if the right procedures and policies were in place, or at least followed if they did exist. But that seems to be the trend these days. We keep finding out that such procedures do not necessarily exist or they are not followed until a major incident occurs.
Take the previous three major airline disasters over the past year or so. First we had Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014 without a trace and still hasn't been found, along with its 239 passengers and crew.
I had always assumed that there were tracking devices that identified an aircraft's position at all times. Well, that apparently isn't the case. And it still isn't the case more than a year later for the vast majority of flights in the international air travel system, though supposedly such tracking mechanisms are in the works. Again, we learned the true state of affairs after the fact.
Let's move on to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which was allegedly shot down on July 17, 2014, by a Russian missile fired by Ukrainian separatists, killing all 298 passengers and crew. The aircraft was on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on a route that passed over Ukraine. I previously assumed that major airlines did not fly over areas of the world in conflict, or at least tried to avoid them. Not so, we learned from this disaster. Of course, flights were subsequently re-routed around the area of Ukraine in question after the aircraft was shot down. But again, this happened after the fact.
Finally, we had the disaster of Air Asia Flight 8501, which apparently crashed into the ocean on Dec. 28, 2014, on a flight from Surabaya to Singapore, killing all 155 passengers and crew. Reportedly the aircraft was trying to get around or above some incredibly severe weather. Now I always assumed that today's modern aircraft could fly through or above or even avoid such weather well in advance. But we learned, after the fact, that this is not always the case.
Don't get me wrong, flying is still the safest mode of transportation in the world (or so they keep telling us). But when we keep learning, after the fact, about all the policies, procedures and situations that were not in place or were not followed that could have prevented such disasters, I begin to wonder: Is everything being done that can be done to ensure passenger safety? And is flying really safe? I'd like to see policies and procedures enacted or observed well before these incidents occur. I don't want to learn about something that was or wasn't done after the fact.
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