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In Germanwings aftermath, Europe eyes risk from within the cockpit (+video)

Unlike the US, Europe does not have rules prohibiting pilots being left alone inside the cockpit of airliners. But that is starting to change.

In the aftermath of tragedy, there is no more powerful sentiment than “if only.” And the case of the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash – a tragedy in which investigators say the co-pilot locked himself in the cockpit and intentionally slammed the plane into the French Alps – has brought an outpouring of such retrospection across Europe.

“If only” the airline had mandated that no pilot could ever be alone in the cockpit – the standard in the US but not a European regulation – would the 150 passengers aboard the flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf be alive right now?

Now, European airlines and administrators are reconsidering aviation procedures to deal with a previously underconsidered threat: where the person seeking harm is already inside the cabin.

French prosecutors say co-pilot Andreas Lubitz can be heard breathing steadily as the Airbus A320 starts on a ten-minute descent, while knocking from the outside becomes more vigorous. The plane then slams into the mountainside going at least 400 miles per hour, killing all 150 people on board.

In the US, Mr. Lubitz would not have been left alone at the controls, according to regulations that mandate that if a pilot leaves the cockpit, he or she must be replaced by a cabin member. It is part of what Captain John Cox, the CEO of Safety Operating Systems based in DC, calls a “layered approach,” one that weighs the threat of terrorism against the threat of other such issues that could arise, like a lone pilot becoming incapacitated or in a rare case intending to commit suicide or murder.

Changing the rules

Europe’s rules are different. Dominique Fouda, the head of communications of the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European-wide equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), says that their regulations mandate that two pilots must always be in the cockpit, but one can be left alone only if the other needs to use the restroom or tend to a problem related to the operation of the aircraft.

Norwegian Air Shuttle was among the first to announce protocol changes yesterday, as prosecutors turned the case into one of voluntary manslaughter. Their spokeswoman Charlotte Holmbergh Jacobsson says that effective immediately, after receiving regulatory approval today, any pilot who has to leave the cockpit must be replaced by a crew member.

“Now we have decided to follow US regulations,” she says. EasyJet made a similar change effective today. The German Aviation Association issued a statement today saying that, at least temporarily, all German airlines would follow suit.

And some are calling for rules that not only catch up to the US on this specific regulation but outdo it – ones that require not just another person in the cockpit but another pilot who is trained to control an aircraft in the case of a rogue or severely depressed pilot who screening somehow failed to flag.

“Would the cabin crew under this rule, sitting in a jump seat chatting away to a pilot in control who just changes the dial on auto control and puts the [plane] in descent, would they recognize that?” says Jim Morris, a specialist aviation lawyer in Britain and former Royal Air Force pilot. “Perhaps the rules and authorities should go even further to have at least three pilots.”

Not all airlines in Europe have rushed to change rules. Lufthansa stood by its policies yesterday, before changing course today. Some airlines had already implemented the two-person policy, like Finnair. Norwegian Air says it had discussed this policy for “a while,” before fast-tracking it after the Germanwings tragedy. National aviation authorities in Europe, as well as industry experts, say that the two-person regulation has come under discussion, but the threat of suicide was considered so unlikely that it wasn’t widely embraced.

A new standard?

The FAA released a 10-year review from 2003 to 2012 showing that among 2,758 fatal accidents, only 8 were “aircraft-assisted suicide.”

“The pilot was the sole occupant in 7 of the 8 aircraft that were intentionally crashed,” it reports. “Based on the limited accidents conclusively attributed to suicide, death by the intentional crashing of an aircraft is an infrequent and uncommon event and has declined compared to the previous 20 years.”

Still, the American policy came in the aftermath of 9/11, which made the US response to regulation “probably a little bit more aggressive,” says Mr. Cox. “Europeans, with short flights, felt that the likelihood of a pilot getting up, and the other one having a medical emergency, was pretty low,” he says.

And it is far from clear that such a policy could have thwarted this tragedy – or any future incident. The level of screening that the industry carries out to detect mental illness is now under scrutiny. German officials released news that Lubitz had ripped up notes from doctors excusing him from a period of work covering the day of the tragedy, and the German media has reported on his battle with mental illness.

Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, says that, while rare, the threat of intentional crashing must now be robustly addressed. “My sense of it is that having two people at all times is very quickly going to become the standard,” he says. And he adds that the EU, and US, might have to go even further. “They need to consider not just who goes into cockpits but what kind of training that person needs to have.”

Europe could take the lead, in no small part because emotions are running high and passengers might now demand it.

"Back in the days of East Germany, there were always three people in the cockpit," says Simone Dargatz, a middle-aged resident of Berlin. "Nowadays money is often more important than security.… Europe is definitely behind in that respect."

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