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I thought Germanwings was one of the safest airlines

Updated on April 30, 2015
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Given the old reputation that the German industry has earned since the introduction of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, many countries nowadays vouch for the sturdiness, robustness, resilience and sleekness that characterize German machines, be they vehicles or other apparatus. It has become ritual in Morocco, for instance, that large cabs offer their service in Mercedes cars. This car make is more commonly used than any other on account of the qualities mentioned above.

Nonetheless, users of German machines, including cab drivers, do have accidents now and then while availing themselves of these latter. Whereas the causes of the accidents are rarely technical, the culpability of the users is very likely to prevail. The recent and unexpected Germanwings plane crash is quintessential.

I have travelled many times with this company, which is a Lufthansa Group airline featuring on The Telegraph as one of the ten safest airlines. Every time I booked a flight ticket on their website I lulled myself into false security. After the fashion of the cab drivers who have faith in Mercedes cars, I also thought that Germanwings planes were the most secure to fly aboard. However, after the fact, I felt a dire need to put my assumption into scrutiny. According to field data and evidence gleaned from the flight recorders, the cause of the crash had nothing to do with technical problems. On the one hand, it was reported, predictably, that the mechanical state of the Germanwings plane had been intact prior to the crash. On the other hand, the complicity of the human factor was undeniable.

Twenty minutes after take-off, the captain of the flight had to go to answer the call of nature – a call that was going to usurp his own nature. The co-pilot, 28 year old Andreas Lubitz, was therefore left to his own devices in the cockpit. Suddenly, he sped up the plane descending the Airbus A320 into the Alps. The captain was heard in the meantime returning from the bathroom to find out, much to his dismay, that he was locked out of the cockpit. He tried desperately to gain access by knocking lightly on the door. Once he realized his attempt was to no avail, he started banging on it as he anticipated the imminence of the crash. Meanwhile, the co-pilot could be heard breathing normally during the last throes of the flight which has culminated in a colossal crash at 700km/h killing 150 passengers. The impenetrable doors installed by airlines, including Germanwings, to separate the cabin from the cockpit and ensure that the doors are intruder- and bullet-proof following the despicable 9/11 attacks, was what prevented the captain from breaking into the cockpit to save the plane. The assumption that evil resides only outside the cockpit has cost the company dearly.

The public opinion has been extremely appalled by the calamity and wondered why a human being would commit such a hideous and heinous crime – a mass-murder suicide. At first, Lufthansa stated that it was unaware of Lubitz's motives for the deliberate plane crash. Later on, the company revealed that he interrupted his pilot's training without justification. Then, it was stated that he had gone through an episode of severe depression during this interval, a fact that was laid out by medical documents which he provided the flight school with to resume training.

This raises questions about the attention given to the human factor compared to the technical one in providing services. Germanwings stated that Lubitz hid a sick note about his illness that should have grounded him. While Lubitz can be by no means exonerated from this accusation, the question that begs itself is: What pre-emptive measures did Germanwing take to prevent his mass-murder? In other words, did it ensure that its pilots are psychologically screened before they are entrusted with the lives of hundreds of passengers? Another pertinent question is: How are these tests conducted?

It is reported that Carsten Spohr, the head of Lufthansa, has seemingly admitted that there are no special psychological tests that are mandatory across Europe. Besides, the screening process is carried out occasionally, that is to say from once to six months a year, depending on age. It is commonly known that during this period of time a person is likely to go through various experiences that can have an impact on his or her psychological state. As regards the validity issue of the tests, the elicited answers are not in-depth. Furthermore, flight schools screen out candidates based on their ability to fly, not on psychological reasons. As a result, following Taylorian labor division, the self of the pilot is reduced to a set of effective movements that are necessary to take off a plane, fly it towards its destination, and then land it. However, the complexity and vicissitudes that characterize humans cannot be contained within such a predominantly technical view of the world. The emphasis on this latter has undoubtedly proved effective in producing cutting-edge apparatus, but could not foresee and prevent the aberrations of their users.

How often do you think pilots should be psychologically assessed?

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