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3/27/15

Society's elephant in the room

It's long past the time when we as a society stopped ignoring both causes and effects of mental illnesses such as severe depression, and stopped sweeping them under the carpet. With the word Germanwings now instantly connected to horror, rather than positive concepts such as cheap and convenient travel, your humble scribe won't get much pushback by stating that they're not just dangerous for the person concerned.

As for the Germanwings flight, may they all rest in peace. Tragedy is an overused word, but there's no better (worse?) example. A terrible sequence of events that's been breaking my heart all week, let's hope we can learn something from the events and get just a little better at this living  together thing as a result.


UPDATE: This is forwarded to your humble scribe by reader WW. Specifically about the security threat of the renegade crew member and their security door, it's written by Philip Baum (his website here) and it's well worth your eyetime:

Germanwings 9525:
the challenge of suicidal pilots behind intrusion-proof cockpit doors
 
by Philip Baum

 
On 17th February 2014, Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines flight, on which he was serving as First Officer, to Geneva. Tegegn exploited the window of opportunity afforded him when the Captain exited the flight deck for a toilet break, bolting the flight deck door closed from the inside in order that he could take complete command of the aircraft. When the Captain tried to return to the flight deck, he found that he was locked out; he, the rest of the crew and passengers, simply prayed that Tegegn was not suicidal as they banged on the door hoping to gain access. They were lucky that Tegegn was simply seeking asylum. On 20th March this year, in absentia, Tegegn was sentenced to 19 years and 6 months in prison by the Ethiopian courts for the hijacking.
 
The incident highlighted three security challenges the industry faces. Firstly, the fact that the enhanced flight deck door, designed to keep potential hijackers outside the cockpit, can also prevent crew and passengers overpowering an intruder, or pilot, should they manage to lock themselves inside. Secondly, the reality of the 'insider threat' whereby a, presumably, 'trusted' and vetted individual can become the assailant. And, thirdly, that we have to start to acknowledge that aviation security is not just a counterterrorist operation and that, as such, we need to be able to identify negative intent of whatever kind and wherever it can impact upon the safety and security of our operations.
 
Granted that the Ethiopian Airlines incident ended without loss of life, procedures did not change as a result. Additionally, I believe that the fact that it was an Ethiopian airliner (as opposed to a European or American carrier), en route to Rome from Addis Ababa, resulted in less media interest and industry disregard. The end result could have been so different; the Ethiopian hijacking took place only three months after Captain Hermino dos Santos Fernandes crashed the Mozambique Airlines aircraft he was piloting (from Maputo to Luanda, Angola) in Namibia. The cockpit voice recorder showed that the co-pilot had been locked outside the flight deck and was desperately trying to get into the cockpit when the aircraft impacted with the ground, killing all on board.
 
What was the global response to that incident? None. Why? Probably because it was an African carrier flying between Mozambique and Angola.
 
Pilot suicide is not commonplace, but it is not unheard of. The frequency is, however, certainly far greater than the number of times suicidal terrorists have commandeered aircraft and flown them into population centres. The higher profile incidents of Royal Air Maroc, SilkAir, and EgyptAir are often cited as the rare examples of such action impacting commercial aviation, but unstable pilots operating in the General Aviation or recreational arena, have often chosen to perform acts termed 'aircraft-assisted suicide'. According to a Federal Aviation Administration report on the phenomena in the United States, published in February 2014, "From 2003-2012, there were 2,758 fatal aviation accidents; the NTSB determined that 8 were aircraft-assisted suicides (all involving the intentional crashing of an aircraft)".
 
The loss of Germanwings flight 9525 whilst en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on 24th March this year is likely to be an industry game changer, primarily because it was a German carrier (owned by Lufthansa), operating from Spain and crashing in France. Within hours of the announcement that the First Officer, Andreas Lubitz, had intentionally crashed the airliner, some carriers were changing their procedures so that there would, henceforth, always be two crewmembers on the flight deck - a long-standing recommended practice; should a pilot need to exit the cockpit, a flight attendant would be required to take their place. On shorter flights, this can be quite a challenge given the workload on the cabin crew mid-flight. Yet we still don't know why Lubitz crashed the aircraft and we are basing decisions on cockpit voice recorder data which should not, at such an early stage, even have been made public; the revelations were in breach of globally accepted international accident investigation processes.
 
Regardless, calls from within the industry emerged within hours of the branding of Lubitz the culprit and they ranged from mandating the periodic psychological assessments of pilots to considering enabling people on the ground to be able to override the door locking system. Hopefully, however, there will be no knee-jerk reaction and common sense will prevail. Firstly, in order to plan for the future we need to know the full details of what took place on the flight deck of Germanwings 9525 and that information will take months to amass. Flying an aircraft directly into a mountainside in the French Alps will certainly have made it difficult, if not impossible, to effect a detailed forensic examination of Lubitz's corpse. Secondly, the best lesson we can learn from the past is the need to avoid panic reactions. After all, as I wrote in an article in Aviation Security International last April regarding the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which may yet also be proved to be the result of pilot suicide, "One of the most significant concerns about the knee-jerk reaction to install reinforced flight deck doors in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks is that, whilst it may keep the bad guys out of the cockpit, it can also keep the good guys out too."
 
The flight deck door is opened far too frequently in flight. Granted the huge outlay the industry made on such a sophisticated locking and strengthening system, we need much more vigorous protocols for their usage. The industry has resisted calls to have secondary barriers, or doors, despite the relatively low price tag on their installation. Rather, we have an access/egress system which is rarely performed in accordance with recommended practice and where complacency is often the order of the day.
Inflight security procedures need to be rigorously enforced. The consequences of a laissez faire attitude to the last line of defence can be catastrophic. But, let's wait until we know what did happen before we make irreversible decisions and procurements. Also, we must also recognise that we can take all the steps in the world to try to secure our aircraft yet still fall victim to the actions of one individual who does not appear on our radar screen as a threat...especially if he or she is at the controls.