Could the Germanwings Crash Have Been Avoided?

Probably not. Here's why.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

As I write I am listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement that the Germanwings crash in France this week was apparently a deliberate act of suicide/murder. The ramifications:

1) Has anything like this ever happened before? Yes it has. For instance, back in 1999, EgyptAir flight 990, shortly after taking off from Kennedy airport in New York en route to Cairo, disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod. In 2001, my friend and then-Atlantic-colleague William Langewiesche, who has spent all his life around aviation, wrote a celebrated story for our magazine about the evidence that the plane's pilot had deliberately flown the aircraft into the sea. You can read "The Crash of EgyptAir 990" online here. It is probably the most useful work of journalism to consider today.

William Langewiesche's piece contains this observation, which so far reflects to the great credit of French and German officials:

One of the world's really important divides lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not. This is as true for a confined and technical event like the crash of a single flight as it is for political or military disasters. The first requirement is a matter of national will, and never a sure thing: it is the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie. The second requirement follows immediately upon the first, and is probably easier to achieve: it is the need for people in the aftermath to maintain even tempers and open minds.

2) Could this happen in just the same way on U.S. airlines? In exactly the same way, no. In a somewhat similar way, yes.

It wouldn't happen in exactly the same way, with one member of the flight crew left alone in the cockpit, because on U.S. airlines a flight attendant or other member of the cabin crew is always supposed to temporarily take a pilot's place in the cockpit if a pilot leaves for the bathroom or for other reasons. Obviously the flight attendant is not expected to fly the airplane, but he or she could help if there were a medical emergency—letting the other pilot back in if one pilot passed out, etc.—and, by mere presence, presumably deter any weird solo activity by someone alone at the controls.

But obviously this step is not foolproof. Most pilots are men; most flight attendants are women; and, regardless of any strength imbalance a pilot planning to attack or overwhelm a flight attendant would have the advantage of surprise.

So, the two-person rule would prevent the exact Germanwings scenario. But there is no foolproof way to prevent a pilot intent on crashing from carrying out that plan.

3) Does this mean that the fortified-cockpit rules put in place after 9/11 are fundamentally flawed? Based on what we know now, I don't think so. Here's why:

After any disaster of this sort, it's natural to think: Oh, if only we had Different Rule X, or Different Piece of Equipment Y, then none of this would have happened. And after the 9/11 attacks, that impulse led to the quite important step of fortifying cockpit doors. This was intended to ensure that no attacks like 9/11's could ever happen again: Even if hijackers got weapons onto the plane, even if they surprised and overwhelmed the cabin crew, they wouldn't be able to get to the controls and turn the plane into a flying bomb.

But there is an unavoidable dilemma with these cockpit doors. They have to be impregnable against normal threats. But there has to be some way to override them. Otherwise you could think of nightmare scenarios involving doors no one could unlock. For instance: a cabin fire or emergency decompression while one pilot and a flight attendant are inside the cockpit, behind a locked door. They pass out; meanwhile the other pilot, who had been in the bathroom, stands desperately outside the locked door, unable to get at the controls, put on an oxygen mask, and save the plane.

The Airbus instructional video below is today's most popular YouTube clip, because it shows how an override system works. The details of these systems may vary: some with passwords, some with numerical codes, some with keys or secret access points.

But I think spending too much time on details of the doors is pointless. In the end, any of these systems will finally rest on the judgment and trustworthiness of the people using them. Precisely because you have to allow override measures in case of emergency, you necessarily will leave a system vulnerable to abuse by someone in a position of trust. Something similar is true of the use of autopilots and automated flight-management systems. Because you have to give pilots the ability to override automated controls that go wrong, you necessarily leave the system vulnerable to someone intent on harm. This is an insoluble dilemma.

4) By the way, isn't air travel becoming much more dangerous? This latest episode is horrific as an act of calculated mass murder. The Malaysia Airlines disappearance over the ocean last year was horrifying for its utter mystery. The Asiana crash at SFO two years ago appeared to reflect deficient basic-flying skills. The TransAsia crash in Taiwan this year also appeared to involve serious pilot error. Etc.

Everything about airplane crashes makes them emotionally powerful and frightening. But to the extent statistics matter, they do not reflect an increasing menace in air travel. All around the world, something like 100,000 commercial flights take off and land safely every day. Last year, not a single person was killed in a commercial crash in the United States, and the fatality rate has been declining for a very long time. Statistically, being on a first-world commercial airline is the very safest way you can spend your time, and is safer now than it has ever been before, even though emotionally it might not seem that way.

We have a number of horrific episodes, which on current evidence do not amount to a systematic air-safety problem.

5) What about the "co-pilot"? Patrick Smith, of, frequently emphasizes overuse of this term. The two people on a flight crew are both certified pilots. They often split the flying duties, the one with the controls at a given moment known as Pilot Flying, or PF, and the other as Pilot Not Flying, PNF. Usually the senior of the two will sit in the left seat and be called the captain and have four bars on his epaulet. The junior will be in the right seat and be called first officer and have three bars. But each of them is independently trained and tested to control the airplane.

Sometimes "senior" and "junior" can reflect standing within an airline rather than overall flying experience. In this case, Andreas Lubitz, the first officer who reportedly flew the Germanwings plane into the ground, was junior in all senses, He was 28 years old, a fairly recent pilot, with a total of 630 flight hours, which is not very much. (The captain had about 6,000 hours of flight experience.) On the other hand, the road to being a multi-thousand-hour pilot starts with being a multi-hundred hour pilot, and according to Lufthansa there was no reason to think the pilot lacked proficiency in this aircraft. The FAA now requires first-officer candidates to have 1,500 hours of flying experience and certification as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP), which is the highest level of flight certificate. But until the ATP / 1,500-hour requirement was added two years ago, first-officer candidates could be considered with as little as 250 hours' experience. I'll say more about these changing requirements in another installment.

6) Does it mean anything that the murderous pilot trained at an American flight school, "just like the terrorists"? No, it does not. This is normal rather than in any way suspicious.

The United States is the dominant place for flight training for pilots from around the world. Costs are lower here; facilities are far more numerous; many of the schools are in Florida (where the 9/11 terrorists trained) or Arizona (where this pilot did) because of the good-weather advantages. Two weeks ago I was flying from Deer Valley Airport, north of Phoenix, where the traffic pattern and radio frequencies were full of Chinese airline pilots doing training there.

7) Would some improved screening system have found this person before he could do such harm? I don't know, but I am sure we'll hear more on this front. At AskThePilot, Patrick Smith has an update about psychological pressures on, and screening for, airline pilots.

In short, this is a terrible episode, all the worse-seeming because it was intentional. But even as we absorb its horror and extend deep sympathies, it is worth resisting the temptation to think that some new regulation or device can offer perfect protection against calculated malice. Unfortunately, none can.