What To Make Of Germanwings Crash?

Filed Under: Travel

I don’t actually have any brilliant insight here, but just figured I’d share my thoughts.

The world is always caught off guard when airliners go down. Safe air travel is something we take for granted nowadays. And air travel has indeed become very safe — you’re basically safer in an airplane than in your living room nowadays.

While statistically the past year has been among the safest in history as far as aviation goes, it sure doesn’t feel like it, between the Malaysia 777 which disappeared, the Malaysia 777 which went down, and the Germanwings A320 which went down on Tuesday.

I have a hard time watching the media coverage of plane crashes, given the immediate need for answers. Don’t get me wrong, I get why they do it — people have questions, and that’s what the media is playing to. Viewers want speculation, and not just “experts” saying “it’s too soon to know anything.” But in the minutes and hours following a crash, there’s not much information.

Instead I just follow @thatjohn and @AirlineFlyer on Twitter, as they do an amazing job sharing the facts.

I just caught up on the press conference from the French prosecutor regarding Germanwings 9525, and it’s amazing how quick and decisive this investigation has been, especially after the MH370 mystery which is still looming.

Here’s what we do know about the Germanwings crash:

  • Before the captain left the cockpit he gave a briefing about the approach, during which the first officer’s answers were all curt
  • The first officer refused to let the captain back in after he left the cockpit, even though he was banging on the door — the first officer didn’t say a single word after the captain left the cockpit
  • The crash was a voluntary action on the part of the first officer — he let the plane descend and lose altitude
  • The first officer didn’t seem to be in a state of panic based on his breathing, which seemed normal
  • The prosecutor can’t use the word “suicide” to describe someone that takes down a plane with 150 people behind him; the case is being prosecuted as murder

I won’t speculate on the motive, or anything, since I’m sure we’ll get more information on that soon.

Below is a video about the Airbus A320 reinforced cockpit door procedure, which helps explain why the captain couldn’t access the cockpit. The big benefit of the reinforced cockpit door is that it means no one can enter the cockpit against the will of whoever is inside of it, whether they’re “good” or “bad.”

So when we find out that a horrible accident like this was caused by voluntary human behavior, is that reassuring or not? On one hand it is reassuring to know that airplanes don’t just fall out of the sky and that they do “work” properly, though on the other hand it’s terrifying to think how volatile the human mind can be.

When we get on a plane we put our lives in the hands of complete strangers, hoping that they’re mentally “with it.” And that’s something we have to do, and something that isn’t limited to flying — the same is true when we take trains, buses, etc.

One thing that I think is interesting to note is how cockpit protocol differs in the US vs. elsewhere. For US airlines, you always have two people in the cockpit. Before a pilot can leave the flight deck, a flight attendant has to enter the cockpit.

I don’t know of anywhere outside the US where this is a procedure. I don’t think that procedure is in place on US airlines because they’re trying to prevent pilots from crashing planes, but it’s probably mainly in the event the pilots are incapacitated, and also to “streamline” the procedure, given the “cart blocking” which is required when pilots have to use the lavatory.

But I’m also not sure that’s a solution, really. Ultimately if a pilot wants to crash a plane, they can. No one can stop them.

The aviation industry is extremely safety conscious, and the one good thing is that whenever something goes wrong, procedures are changed to prevent a similar thing from happening in the future. As we learn more about what happened here, I’m curious what will be done to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Again, my thoughts are with the families and friends of those that were onboard the Germanwings flight. I can’t even imagine how horrible this must be for them…

  1. Maybe the cockpit door should never be in a state that it is permanently locked from the inside without any override on the outside. And maybe the other countries’ airlines should consider employing a rule which requires a flight attendant to replace a pilot when the pilot leaves the cockpit. We can’t prevent crazy, but we can make it more difficult for the crazies to kill us.

  2. EU-zone air safety guidelines and SOPs are being shown to be inadequate, especially compared to those of the US. I’ve been shocked at some of the lax procedures I’ve observed on EU airlines like airberlin (baffling CRM, only one pilot in cockpit, while the second pilot sleeps in the back of the business class cabin).

  3. Sadly if someone is wanting to and willing to die, there is not much that can be done. I do think having a guideline that you have to have another person in the cockpit makes sense…but all in all its just a sad, horrifying and tragic result.

  4. Automated take offs and landings have been possible since the 1980s. There is a technical solution to the problem. But first all countries should adopt the policy to never have the cockpit occupied by a single person rule.

  5. I’m not sure I completely buy the argument that nothing can be done if a pilot really wants to take the plane down.

    Can’t we make it even harder?

    How about Europe and Asia enacting laws to require a flight attendant in the cockpit when a pilot steps out?

    How about an auto-generated code for an electronic lock to get back into the cockpit, like the code that my VPN generates so I can log in? That solves the “but if there’s a code, the terrorists could figure it out” right?

    How often do pilots and crew undergo psychiatric evaluations? Whatever it is, chop the timeframe in half.


    Seems like we could make something rare even more rare.

  6. In the video, at 3:39 mark the pilots opened the door for Sally without looking at the spy hole to make sure she is not held at a gun/knife point. Basically all it takes for a cockpit door to be opened is a simple call from a flight attendant asking an entry.

  7. Ben good analysis on a subject. We just can’t even phantom the idea of this tragedy being possible without the word ‘terrorism’ creeping into the mix due to the intend to create harm here, as we now know. So it’s just SOOOOOO sad & disturbing that a trained professional wanted to do this to all the innocent people on board. Maybe the US ‘procedure’ in the cockpit should be evaluated by European carries, in the hope of ‘improving’ the possibility of something like this never happens again! What a terrible tragedy.

  8. Really horrible to read. I had worried this was what happened because the rate of descent from cruise just didn’t make sense. And that’s what it is, senseless. My worry is with each year we as a global society become desensitized to mass murder, which in turn makes it easier for people to copycat the action. The human mind is a very fragile thing and we live in an era where destructive actions are easier to carry out than ever before.

    I only hope this doesn’t create a panic amongst pax and airlines. When I was a teenager, Columbine happened and I remember vividly the days following when both teachers and students were on edge at my high school. It would have been very easy for someone to point a finger or perceive a threat and wreak havoc on what little stability was enduring at the time. But we all held it together and assumed the best from each other.

    Just so selfish and unfathomably malicious. Hoping there’s a more humane explanation other than what the prosecutor contends.

  9. this may accelerate the development and adoption of remote co-piloting, whereby airlines would have a staff of backup copilots monitoring flights, and able to supercede cabin-decisions remotely

  10. In the coming years there probably will be technology that will let the pilot control the aircraft remote from another device, no matter where they are. That might prevent these situations.

    It sucks to have planes crash like this. One of my friends has a very bad case of flight-phobia (I forgot the word for it) and it’s causing him a lot of trouble. My thoughts are with those affected and I hope that something of this sort never happens again.

  11. When a FA is required to replace the captain, or if the aircraft can be taken over remotely, that does not stop somebody who wants to do harm.

    A pilot can just as well steer an aircraft into a mountain with the other pilot next to him. And any remote control features surely can be turned off by the captain – what if a hacker takes control of the plane remotely? The captain will always be the one who can control any and every aspect of the flight. And therefore if the captain has something bad in mind, there is nothing that can stop him.

  12. @pavel “My worry is with each year we as a global society become desensitized to mass murder, which in turn makes it easier for people to copycat the action. The human mind is a very fragile thing and we live in an era where destructive actions are easier to carry out than ever before.”

    Destructive actions aren’t any easier today than they were 50 years ago. Bullets and airplanes and crazy people committing senseless acts all have existed for decades and centuries. Statistically speaking we’re living in one of the safest periods in history, since the dawn of human existence. That doesn’t change the fate of the Germanwings flight, or the unknown fate of the missing Malaysia flight, but it is what it is.

    We could all only hope for a more humane explanation for this tragedy, but it unfortunately seems that the fatal flaws of a single human has darkened the lives of countless around the world.

  13. New cockpit door regulations on the way!
    Meanwhile the pilots (who definitely lost their nimbus of authority) shouldn’t be allowed to leave the cockpit during flight. They can wear adult diapers for all I care.

  14. Maybe the cockpit door should never be in a state that it is permanently locked from the inside without any override on the outside.

    But, then you’d have hijackers able to enter the cockpit if they were able to torture the pilot or lead flight attendant into giving them the override code.

  15. Ben,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is a terrible tragedy.

    For what it is worth – from the natural rights perspective with the ideal of preserving human freedom and dignity:

    – Tragedies are inevitable and are inherent in our humanity. Yes we should try and limit tragedies in our lives, but they will regrettably strike at random
    – No matter how much you restrict human freedom and natural rights in the name of safety, tragedies and accidents will still happen. Take prison, humans have every freedom taken from them to keep them safe, and rapes and murders still occur daily. Even if governments passed millions of laws to help prevent tragedy it would still happen. A world where the government attempts to do this is a terrible place to live because the best part of being human, freedom, is sacrificed in the name of this illusion of safety.
    – Taking action to “increase safety” at the expense of natural rights is always a foolish trade-off from a positivist point of view and an immoral trade-off from a natural law point of view. When the world governments mandated cockpit doors had to be sealed off from “terrorists” – the negative unintended consequence of a rogue or incapacitated pilot downing a plane is yielded.
    – Regarding terrorists, there will not be many more planes taken down by any anytime soon, and not because of the TSA and other restrictions on freedom. Because passengers since 9/11 know that if someone is up to funny business their life is on the line and they will take him out instead of assume he will fly to another country to do some hostage exchanging.

    Regrettably, you can rest assured that whatever action world governments and “regulators” take it will be a) window dressing; b) ultimately ineffective with negative unintended consequences to come; and c) will be done immorally by further restricting human freedom for the sake of safety.

    God bless the families impacted and hopefully they can mourn in peace.

  16. I’ve always thought the lost flight was a similar case but it went down in the ocean so who knows.

    If the cockpit lock can be overridden from outside, then aren’t we back to what made 9/11 possible? I think the only answer to these suicide pilots is better background checks. But someone who has trained and waited for years to get famous this way might still go undetected. I’m starting to think we really should not be publicizing the names of mass murderers. Killing a lot of people is almost the only way for many high testosterone men to get famous in an overcrowded world full of richer and more successful people always in your face. Right now this killer’s name is trending on Twitter. There is almost nothing else he could have done with his life to achieve that. How do you fix that? I don’t know. There are people who go around sharing the idea that “you die twice, the second time is the last time someone speaks your name.” To some people getting their name out there is a form of immortality that’s otherwise denied to them.

  17. A horrible tragedy.

    The very thing put in place to protect us the locked door has led to innocent deaths.

    It’s always difficult to think rationally in the immediate aftermath of something like this.

    It comes down to a view of the risk, is the risk of pilot acts higher than the risk of terrorist attacks.

    We know terrorists want to attack us and know they are doing everything they can to attack us. Pilot acts must be easier to guard against through pshycological testing. I would think the answer lies somewhere along the route of keeping the cockpit secure from the randoms and beefing up checking and profiling of pilots.

  18. My question is was this planed by the first officer? If so how could he possibly have know the captain would even leave the cock pit? (That is not a very long flight)., or did he just decide at that moment to end his and 148 other peoples lifes.

  19. The worst part, to me, is this bit from the NY Times article:

    “Passengers could be heard screaming before the crash, he said.”

  20. @ David — Not to get too much into speculation here, but keep in mind that in general he did this on the return sector. On any given sector I don’t think it’s a given that one pilot uses the restroom, but over several sectors I do think it’s pretty likely.

  21. This was such a tragedy. And to know that someone did this on purpose baffles, shocks and frightens me. Ideally, EU will implement similar rules as the US to help prevent a tragedy like this from ever occurring again. Thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. So horrible and shocking.

  22. While I agree nothing will 100% stop a truly determined pilot from crashing a plane, I think the US system of two people in the cockpit at all times certainly goes a long way toward making it much more difficult on a rogue pilot. At a minimum this flight would have had a fighting chance.

  23. Can I have my bottled water back and the TSA’s hand out of my crotch now?

    I’m 100% with what Jon and Tocqueville say — this *IS* the safest time in human history. If anything, it’s too safe. We (our government) are now ultra-paranoid about threats (possible bad things) and have completely forgotten about risk (the actual chances of a threat happening). Bombings, shootings, and such have always happened, with the same frequency as we see today, at least for the past 100 years.

    What a lovely problem we have today — we, generally, are healthy enough and live long enough and violent crime is low enough that our government worries about (and makes laws on) how much fruit juice your preschooler can drink, wearing helmets for ice skating, and cigarettes.

    Part of my job entails security, both electronic and physical plant. Ultimately, there is NOTHING which can be done to stop someone from doing something if they don’t mind losing their life in the process. You can do certain things to discourage/delay it, but there is no 100% fool-proof way that will stop them. I try to balance inconvenience vs. security. Removing the front doors of a facility obviously gives the greatest freedom of movement. Strip-searching every person that enters the facility gives the greatest security against undesired objects (BUT doesn’t do anything about people with bad intentions). Having everyone fill out a 127 page SF86 form and conducting a 6-12 month background check on everyone who wants access to a facility should keep those with ill-intent from gaining entry, but is very burdensome and won’t keep people from bringing sharp pointy things into the facility.

    Would a second crewmember in the cockpit have prevented something like this? No. The murderous FA could have told the captain he was going to take a leak — then head towards the back of the cockpit grab the crash axe stored in the rear of the cockpit and go to town on the captain. For those who’ve not seen a crash axe, see the link below. I have one from a B737 and to this day it remains one of my fav. tools:

  24. The press has failed to mentioned the recent (and many) Lufthansa pilots strikes which may have played into the pilot’s issues. In addition the new Germanwings T&Cs under ‘negotiation’ and it was very recently announced that parent company Lufthansa was planning to stop using “Germanwings” (Germanwings tickets would cease being sold in October) and fold it all into their “Eurowings” subsidiary resulting in up to a 40% pay cut to “Germanwings” crew INCLUDING PILOTS. This pilot who still had to repay thousands of euros in loans for professional flight school fess, together with the huge financial demands of getting a license, pay2fly contracts and associated changes in work patterns etc that MAY….have been a contributing factor. I don’t know if this applies to the FO in question and this is by NO MEANS AN EXCUSE FOR THE RESULTING BEHAVIOUR, but I am just suggesting its worth looking at.

  25. If the guy wants to crash the plane, he can even with another pilot sat beside him.

    The fact that these events have always happened whilst the other pilot is locked out just shows a cowardly nature in line with suicide. Out of sight, out of mind.

    Having a cabin crew member sit in the flight deck is useful for incapacitation, however you could gain entry into the flight deck during incapacitation anyway.

    What it may do though is deter the cowardly act.

  26. US rule seems pretty common sense so not sure why EU didn’t implement it. Of course, there’s no telling it’d prevented this situation as a pilot may be able to incapacitate a FA.

  27. My son flew home from Madrid the day before this tragedy. He was with 16 classmates and two teachers from his high school who were, likewise, on an exhange program in Spain. We were at the airport in Boston on Monday night for this happy reunion. My heart breaks for the German families whose children never made it home. The terror these passengers experienced makes me sick. The loss for their families makes me weep. I can’t stop thinking about this. Why don’t people like this pilot swallow a bunch of pills at home. I just don’t get it.

  28. But, why did the purser not do that? 8 minutes, 5 minutes is less than 8! Could the pilot or purser not punch in the code, enter, and grab the controls? If the plane is descending, it is noticeable. Why did the purser or pilot not do so?

  29. @ jmr — Sorry, do what? With a reinforced cockpit door, no one is entering the cockpit if the person inside the cockpit doesn’t want them to. They can lock the door.

  30. To those saying there should be an override from outside, this is about the philosophy behind designing the cockpit door. Ultimately it’s designed to deny unauthorized access and not helping pilot get inside when his/her colleague tries to crash the plane intensionally, and that’s why even emergency code can be denied. And while this incident is sad and tragic, this philosophy still applies. It could help to have a FA in the cockpit while one pilot leaves, though.

  31. @jmr The press conference did gave that the emergency code access can be denied from inside.

    And I urge people here with inside knowledge not to go into details of how cockpit door works.

  32. Hi Ben,

    I believe both EI and FR have procedures to ensure that there are 2 people in cockpit at all times, and have done for some time. Strange that it appears majority of world’s airlines don’t – unless other non-US also do but just don’t publicise the fact?


  33. There needs to be a way to like do what I have to do at SEATAC which is a three part system that takes a min or some way of even overriding the cockpit lock a well as the two persons always on the flight deck to at least sort of prevent this from happening. Also why do planes carry crash axes anymore seems like theres no need these days

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