Air Safety

Air disaster in the Alps part of 9/11 legacy

Crash site in the Alps
Germanwings-crash.jpg

The roots of last week’s tragic plane crash could, in some ways, be traced back to the 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA.

Set in an Orwellian plot it could also be interpreted as a victory of machine over man. Both are cause for a thorough review of international air travel safety protocols. Also to consider whether it should not become subject to an international convention rather than being left to individual national regulatory authorities.

No link between the 28-year-old co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, believed to have deliberately crashed the Airbus A320 of Germanwings into the French Alps, and any terrorist organisations has been found – at least not at the time of writing. Evidence of Lubitz having a history of depression was emerging.

However, it turns out that a cockpit door locking system, which was designed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and intended to prevent suicidal terrorists from seizing control of jetliners, allowed Lubitz to lock out the pilot who had gone for an in-flight toilet break. Also implemented after 9/11, was the fitting of armoured doors to cockpits, which resisted the attempt of the pilot to break down the door.

In the USA, and many other jurisdictions, it is required that there must be at least two people present in the cockpit while a plane is in flight. This is an precaution against the possibility of the pilot falling ill, like having an heart attack - even if it is just a cabin attendant who can summon the second pilot back to the cockpit.

European regulators do not require two people to be in the cockpit at all times, although some European airlines do have it as part of their own in-flight procedures.

What has happened in the French Alps now raises the question of whether the time has not arrived that to make airline safety requirements the subject of a comprehensive international convention as not only the citizens of the country where an airline is registered use its service.

Man and machine                                                                                              

In its coverage of the accident, which might not in the narrow sense of the word have been an ‘accident’, the Los Angeles Times makes the following interesting observation that “...the airplane involved used so-called fly-by-wire technology. The flight crew's control inputs do not go to the ailerons and elevators, but instead to a computer that decides how to execute the pilots' commands. One of the functions of this technology, which is present in all new airliners, is to guard against faulty or ill-advised pilot actions.

“But the pilot still has the last word. If he chooses, he can override the computers. It is one of the axioms of aviation, handed down over generations, that the pilot's authority — presumably for the safety of the flight and its passengers — is absolute. He is a monarch, and the airplane is his kingdom.

“And so, while computers can protect us against pilot error, they cannot defend us against pilot malice. No algorithm, no existing technology, can stop a pilot bent on killing himself, with a plane full of people as collateral damage — as appears to have happened in the Alps.”

The LA Times is probably correct with their conclusion on the matter, but since it would appear that Lubitz’s psychological problems were not picked up, should/could more not be done, both in terms of human protocols and for technological over-rides to further minimise such risks?

How safe to fly?

While air travel has increased dramatically over recent decades and the number of flights per day have ballooned, the numbers of fatal accidents have declined. Last year saw, despite having been higher than in 2013, fewer fatalities from aviation accidents than the average during any decade since the 1940.

During the past 40 years only 13 airline accidents and incidents worldwide were caused by pilots.

In an article published shortly after the Germanwings incident the authoritative The Conversation wrote: “... according to the numbers, and despite variations year-on-year, air travel today is generally safer than it has ever been and much safer than other modes of transportation. That doesn’t mean it is risk free, but the odds of any individual being involved in a fatal accident are at historic lows.”

by Garth Cilliers

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