MIAMI — After the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, the air industry and legislators called for actions intended to reinforce aviation safety. Cockpit doors were redesigned and reinforced, and stringent rules and practices were enforced to have these doors locked during flight, thus minimizing potential threats.
Nevertheless, the technology and methods to make the skies safer have also allowed crew members to keep their colleagues out too as purportedly occurred in Germanwings flight 4U9525.
On Thursday, Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin declared that the captain of the ill-fated flight left the cockpit, presumably to go to the lavatory, and was unable to regain access. Meanwhile, the co-pilot, identified as Andreas Lubitz, manipulated the autopilot to set the aircraft in descent mode, driving it into the southern French Alps.
Robin assured that the co-pilot had the “intention to destroy this plane.”
Although investigations still in its early stages, and many facts about the crash and the crew involved remain unknown, the circumstances recall similar incidents in recent aviation history.
Among these crashes are SilkAir flight PI185, a Boeing 737-300 that crashed in Indonesia in 1997, Egyptair flight MS990, a Boeing 767-300(ER) that plunged in 1999 in the Atlantic Ocean, and LAM Airlines flight TM470, an Embraer E190 that crashed in Namibia in 2013.
All of these accidents share common circumstances: once the aircraft reached cruise altitude (said to be the safest stage of flight), one of the pilots leaves the flightdeck, either for a bathroom break or a visit to the galley. Meanwhile, the other pilot deliberately manipulates the controls to nosedive the airliner to the ground or sea.
In most of these cases, the causes of these crashes remain disputed due to the lack of conclusive evidence. Certainly, though, is that modern jetliners do not fall from the sky and that the actions of the crew at the commands are inconsistent with basic airmanship principles.
The Germanwings crash will surely put further focus on the psychological assessment of pilots and cabin crew, who already undergo a series of background checks during the hiring process by both the airline and authorities, and while working, all pilots have to pass through recurrent medical screenings to keep their license valid.
According to The New York Times, after a raid on Andreas Lubitz’s home, the German Police found a medical note excusing him from work on the day of the accident, besides another note that was torn up. The prosecutors assure that this “support the preliminary assessment that the co-pilot hid his illness from his employer and colleagues.”
On the other hand, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) released a statement assuring that “Airline pilots in the United States and Canada are subject to rigorous screening and evaluation before being hired, including an assessment of the pilot’s mental and emotional state.”
The Association further declared “all airlines in the United States follow similar procedures when opening the cockpit door, which is the most useful tool to safeguard the flight controls and crew and to prevent unauthorized entry to the cockpit. In the United States, at least two crew members are required to be present in the cockpit at all times.”
Meanwhile, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), announced today that a “temporary recommendation for airlines to ensure that at least two crew, including at least one qualified pilot, are in the flight crew compartment at all times of the flight. Airlines should re-assess the safety and security risks associated with a flight crew leaving the cockpit due to operational or physiological needs.”
The recommendation, already put in practice yesterday by Norwegian Airlines, EasyJet, and Air Berlin was enforced by Air Canada and Air Transat as well.
In the meantime, all the airlines of the Lufthansa Group, owner holding company of Germanwings, announced in a press note that “are to adopt new cockpit occupancy procedures as a precautionary measure, in which two authorized persons must be present in the cockpit at all times during a flight.”