The last 12 months have been a terrible year of airline disasters.
First, there was the strange disappearance of flight MH370, probably somewhere over the Indian Ocean, in what has become the most mysterious missing plane in aviation history. After months of ships, submarines and planes combing hundreds of miles of seas, the plane still has not been found.
Then there was the AirAsia QZ8501 tragedy, where inexplicably the plane plunged into the Java Sea off the Indonesia coast, killing all 162 passengers on board.
In the latest tragedy, Germanwings flight 9525 crashed on Tuesday into the French Alps. There were no survivors among the 150 passengers. We now know that the copilot deliberately crashed the plane, while the pilot was desperately trying to get back into the locked cockpit.
Despite these calamities, commercial aviation is still an incredibly safe way to travel, given the massive number of passengers airlines are shuttling through the skies these days. U.S. carriers alone transported 662 million passengers in 2014, a 2.5 percent increase over 2013, according to the Department of Transportation. Worldwide commercial airlines carried more than 3 billion people in 2014. That’s an astounding number of people who were safely delivered to their destinations. A person has better odds surviving a trip on an airplane than a trip to the airport.
But however remarkably safe the airlines are, it’s impossible to get around the fact that airplanes are flown by human beings who are using devices and software designed and programmed by human beings, and as such there is always the possibility for human error. Software can be tested vigorously, but it too is tested by humans. The same holds true for policies and procedures. Stringent airline protocol is designed to protect passengers from tragedy in the air, but all too often unforeseen ramifications may lead to other catastrophes.
The Germanwings tragedy, where the copilot deliberately barred the pilot from entering the cockpit by locking the door and overriding the keypad entry, would seem incomprehensible without the backdrop of the 9/11 hijacking. How is it possible that a pilot cannot have a way to gain entry to his own cockpit? But in a reaction to 9/11, when hijackers easily gained access to the cockpit, aviation authorities were quick to create fortress-like security around it. Steel doors were installed outside all cockpits; keypad systems to open the doors were introduced. While that has been effective in keeping anyone with harmful intentions out of the cockpit, apparently no one thought of how it could potentially backfire and provide protection for a depressed homicidal pilot, Andreas Lubitz. An extreme form of protection created a new breach in security that endangered the safety of airline passengers.
Each passing day investigators are revealing more hair-raising facts about Lubitz. He didn’t appear to be stable enough to be trusted with a set of car keys, let alone a commercial plane loaded with passengers. We learn that he flunked flight school in Arizona. He was treated for depression and had been taking antidepressants for years. He had trouble with his eyesight. On the day of the crash a doctor excused him from showing up at work, and he had made bizarre troubling comments only days prior to the crash. No one had to connect the dots to observe what kind of state Lubitz was in. They were already connected, and the outline of a troubled young man who should not have been entrusted with an airliner is obvious.
And so there will be clamoring for tighter scrutiny of pilots’ mental health and a call for barring pilots with mental illness from flying. A closer look at how airlines deal with illness of every sort is certainly necessary. But at the same time, care must be taken not to create measures that will expose passengers to other risks. The only reason pilots with treatable illnesses are allowed to fly is because experts determined that it’s a better alternative than having aviators trying to hide their health issues and not taking medication or receiving therapy. A zero- tolerance policy for emotional illness or ailments that could affect a pilot’s ability to function will only encourage pilots to cover up their problems. It’s far better to have pilots who are monitored and treated properly than to have ones who are suffering from mental illness but choose to hide their diagnoses in order to preserve their jobs. Bad safety can sometimes prevent good safety from taking place.
The FAA and other national regulatory agencies have to understand how a pilot like Lubitz fell through the cracks, but they should assess carefully the imposition of any new regulations that might open another door to more tragedy.
Finally, this tragedy reminds us once again that there is nothing mortals can do that can possibly totally ensure their safety. Governments can take all kinds of precautions to keep potential terrorists out of cockpits, and can put in place strict measures to try to screen pilots with dangerous medical issues. But in the end, only Hashem can prevent a pilot from suddenly deciding to crash a plane full of passengers.