It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s…Crashing

Technology can be frightening. Cars, computers, and weaponry are largely innocuous when left alone; when combined with malicious human intent, however, their danger is magnified. For instance, on March 24, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz took control of Lufthansa Germanwings Flight 9525 and intentionally drove the airliner into the ground, killing both himself and 149 other passengers (“Lufthansa Says”). Although the crash itself attracted extensive media attention, reports revealing Lubitz’s unstable mental state (and Lufthansa’s awareness of the condition) have sparked debate regarding the way in which airlines ought to deal with mental illness. Such companies have a duty to continuously protect their passengers from possible dangers; as a result, airlines must institute new policies to ensure that their planes are safe from potentially suicidal pilots.

Lufthansa had preexisting knowledge of Lubitz’s mental illness. According to the New York Times, Lubitz had warned Lufthansa of his condition prior to re-enrolling in the company’s pilot training program: he had sent the airline medical documents outlining a “previous episode of severe depression” (“Lufthansa Says”). Regardless of such a state, however, Germanwings deemed Lubitz to be “100 percent flightworthy without any limitations” (“Lufthansa Says”). While the exact reasons for overlooking Lubitz’s depression are unclear, it is evident that regulators should have considered the potential implications of allowing a depressed individual to operate an airplane. On the other hand, however, it is possible that Lufthansa was not aware of the extent of Lubitz’s disorder. The airline’s current system requires pilots to self-report their medical and psychological problems (“Lufthansa Says”), making it more likely that individuals might understate the extent of their conditions in order to secure employment. It is therefore quite possible that the corporation might accidentally disregard a suicidal pilot.

Unfortunately, the recent Germanwings crash is not the only of its kind. In fact, there have been various instances internationally in which desperate pilots have set their planes on the path to destruction. For instance, on August 21, 1994, Royal Air Maroc ATR-42 crashed into the Atlas Mountains after the pilot disconnected the plane’s autopilot system (“List of Aircraft Accidents”). Similarly, in November 1976 a Russian aviator drove his plane into terrain near where his ex-wife resided, while in November 2013 the pilot of LAM Flight TM-470 committed suicide by flying his jet into the ground (“List of Aircraft Accidents”). This litany of mental illness-related tragedies demonstrates the possible consequences of combining emotional instability with transportation technology and highlights the need for increased regulation in the airplane industry. Airlines like Lufthansa therefore ought to take deliberate steps to ensure that their pilots are thoroughly examined prior to flying.

There are several possible methods by which airlines might protect their passengers from injurious aviators. In each situation described above, the crasher isolated himself from other crew members to ensure that his plans would be properly executed. As a result, mandating that two individuals always be present in the flight deck (and substituting flight attendants for pilots when necessary) should prevent an unstable pilot from having the opportunity to take full control of a jet (“Germanwings Crash”). Instituting a third pilot system could further enhance this preventative measure, as this arrangement demands that a co-pilot always has backup in case of an emergency (“Germanwings Crash”). Furthermore, airlines might take technologically-related steps to augment the safety of their carriers. For example, utilizing cockpit video cameras or introducing override systems (under which a plane is programmed to avoid contact with land) might deter pilots from pursuing, and therefore thwart, plans to harm citizens aboard major flights. In addition, while thorough background checks and physical examinations must always be conducted to ensure that pilots are qualified to fly the planes to which they are assigned, more extensive and detailed psychological analyses should help ensure that individuals are mentally sound. Such tests, however, must be conducted as considerately and conscientiously as possible to avoid stigmatizing those with mental conditions.

Every tragedy is not inevitable. Nonetheless, airplane passengers’ safety must never be intentionally jeopardized. Protecting these lives will require a combination of corporate-based steps (such as those outlined above), comprehensive application of preexisting governmental regulations, and lobbying for new legislation regarding hiring and retaining pilots. Only the amalgamation of these components will ensure that almost every airplane remains in the sky.

Works Cited:

“Lufthansa Says:” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/world/europe/lufthansa-germanwings-andreas-lubitz.html?_r=0 

List of Aircraft Accidents:” http://news.aviation-safety.net/2013/12/22/list-of-aircraft-accidents-caused-by-pilot-suicide/

Germanwings Crash:” http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/27/europe/france-germanwings-plane-crash-pilot-threat/