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The suspected murder-suicide crash last month of a Germanwings flight killing 150 people has focused attention on how airlines can better monitor pilots for signs of mental illness, improve relations with employee unions and improve training, among other aspects.
The flight of Germanwings, a low-cost subsidiary of German airline Lufthansa, crashed into the French Alps on way from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf in Germany. Early investigations point to a deliberate suicide by the flight’s co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who had a history of severe depression and had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies.
The crash was “essentially an act of terrorism” and it is impossible to prevent all such acts “until we get enough experience with all acts of terrorism,” said Stuart Diamond, Wharton emeritus practice professor of legal studies and business ethics. Diamond acknowledged that Lufthansa has done well in disclosing that the co-pilot had psychological problems and that the company would take remedial steps. “[However,] I don’t think they’re going far enough,” he said. “Airlines should be even more careful in preventing acts of terrorism.”
Roger W. Clark, an adjunct professor of law at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., where he teaches aviation law, noted that Lufthansa is a long-established airline and the largest in Europe. “Unfortunately, when these tragedies do happen, it focuses under a microscope all the activities of the airline. Lufthansa has to regain the trust of the flying public, one flight at a time.” Clark is also founding member and managing member of the Clark Law Group, which specializes in cases involving air crashes and insurance coverage.
“Ironically, every situation like this that is a tragedy also bears an opprtunity for coming out very positively in a humane way,” said Saikat Chaudhuri, Wharton adjunct management professor and executive director of the school’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management. He noted that Lufthansa in its branding programs has attempted to convey that it is not all about networks and efficiency, and that it has a “human touch” as well. “Dealing with the victims and their families is of course of paramount importance.” From a business point of view, too, Lufthansa must translate that into a mission statement that it is “an airline that cares.”
“Lufthansa has to regain the trust of the flying public, one flight at a time.” Roger W. Clark
Diamond, Clark and Chaudhuri discussed the aviation industry’s structural problems that may have contributed to the suicide crash and suggested possible solutions on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
“The problem is: How do you deal with problems like Andreas Lubitz?” asked Clark. He highlighted other air accidents with causes similar to that of the Germanwings crash. One was the 1997 crash of a SilkAir flight from Jakarta to Singapore that killed all 104 people onboard. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the U.S. concluded it was due to “deliberate pilot activity,” he said. The NTSB identified the same reason for the 1999 Atlantic Ocean crash of the EgyptAir 990 flight from Los Angeles to Cairo that killed all 204 people on board. Pilot-induced suicide was also the cause of a 2013 crash of a Mozambique Airlines flight, Clark noted. He added that similar reasons have been cited for the disappearance last year of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
How Lufthansa deals with its business pressures and the impact on pilots also need to be examined, according to Chaudhuri. He noted that Lufthansa pilots have gone on strike nearly a dozen times in the past year. He also pointed out that the airline has created several subsidiaries like Germanwings and Eurowings in order to be price-competitive, especially against Middle Eastern airlines. Lufthansa has at least 15 wholly or partly owned airline subsidiaries.
“It does bring into focus [the question of] how much pressure can you put on the pilots,” said Chaudhuri. “Now this [Germanwings crash] may not be the result of that — there are other unique circumstances — but there is a larger issue of the well-being of the pilots, which also has to be addressed, given recent episodes.”
Clark talked of “a more fundamental issue” — the global aviation industry’s need to create a pool of 550,000 pilots to cater to the burgeoning demand for airline services, with half of that demand coming from the Asian market. “Pilots are very expensive for airlines, and there is going to be continuing pressure on how to deal with that.”
Technology such as remote-controlled airplanes could provide solutions, said Clark. He noted that already, one out of every three aircraft at U.S. airports is remotely controlled. “[However], the flying public at this point is not willing to get into an airplane that has no human being on board,” he said, adding, “… and technology has its own problems, because it can have hiccups that can cause disasters.”
“The flying public at this point is not willing to get into an airplane that has no human being on board.” –Roger W. Clark
The spotlight now is also on whether airlines must have at least two crew members in a cockpit at all times. “The Andreas Lubitz type of incident is less likely to happen in the U.S. because we do have the two-persons-on-the-flight-deck rule,” said Clark. Three days after the Germanwings crash, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a temporary recommendation for airlines to have at least two crew members, including at least one pilot, in the cockpit at all times during a flight.
Tracking Mental Health
Clark said that after the Germanwings crash, airlines must do a better job of monitoring mental illness among pilots. He felt existing rules that deal with this issue will probably get tweaked. ”The problem is they rely on self-reporting. Most pilots are not willing to self-report that they have a major issue with depression or even suicidal [thoughts] because they [could] lose [their] job.” He noted that while pilots have to undergo periodic medical tests, most medical examiners are not psychiatrists or psychologists. Also, pilots are not required to undergo extensive psychiatric evaluations other than when they are first hired, he added.
According to Clark, most U.S. states require psychiatrists and other mental health providers to report to authorities when they have reasonable cause to suspect that their patient might be a risk to themselves or to others. “If a similar rule had been in place [in Germany], the health providers treating Lubitz should have gone to the authorities and not just given [him] a note to hand on to his employer,” he said.
Clark said that airlines decide on compensation amounts in cases like air crashes in consultation with their insurers and attorneys, and that they generally find reference points in awards given to others in similar circumstances. An international treaty called the Montreal Convention lays the guidelines for the so-called “right to recovery” by victims’ families. Eventually, local courts in various countries may decide on the compensation awards, Clark added, noting that the Germanwings passengers hailed from about 15 countries.
In dealing with victims’ families, Lufthansa is expected to adopt a sensitive approach. “As important, or maybe even more important, than the money involved is what Lufthansa does to begin to heal the scars that are left forever for these people,” said Diamond.