With European investigators as well as Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, acknowledging that the Germanwings Airbus A320 that slammed two days ago into the French Alps, killing 150, was most likely deliberately crashed by 28-year co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, questions are sure to arise on what can be done to prevent such a scenario from ever occurring again. From the information currently available, Lubitz was fairly new to the job, flying A320s since 2013, and his past will surely be taken apart by investigators looking for clues into his motivation for crashing an airliner and taking 149 innocent lives along with his own.
While a few tragic air crashes happen every year across the world — though statistically speaking air travel is the safest form of transport — what made the past year or so uniquely horrible for the aviation industry began with a large Malaysian Boeing 777-200 on flight MH370 disappearing into thin air and with absolutely no trace or debris found till date despite a massive search operation across continents. Worse came when another Malaysian Boeing 777-200 on flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a sophisticated military missile system over Ukraine. They were not the ‘typical’ air disasters caused by human error or poor maintenance, but unexpected and never quite envisaged by anyone except conspiracy buffs. Perhaps only what happened on 11 September, 2001 in the United States matched these disasters in terms of sheer shock — no one expected hijackers to have basic flying skills to fly a hijacked airplane into buildings on a suicide mission designed to strike fear across the West.
And now we have Germanwings flight 4U9525, where a crew member on the flight deck actively prevented his superior officer from re-entering the flight deck after he had stepped out. Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr was quoted in a press conference as saying that the commander of the A320 keyed in the emergency number into the flight deck door’s electronic locking system to gain entry, but the co-pilot deployed a five-minute override. And even before he did this, he perhaps calmly set the A320 on a downward descent into the Alps. Spohr was further quoted as saying that irrespective of sophisticated technology, no system in the world could prevent this scenario. However, while Spohr may be right to an extent, aviation guidelines in the US and countries like India may indeed prevent such a scenario. Borrowing from US FAA rules after the hijackings of 9/11, Indian regulator DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) mandates that a cabin crew member must be inside the flight deck when one of the pilots has to leave for any reason, e.g. to visit the washroom. A senior Jet Airways Boeing 737 pilot confirmed this to Firstpost, though he could not reveal his identity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The US FAA goes further, stating that cabin crew must verify there are no passengers in any forward lavatory, and no passengers are standing in the area surrounding the flight deck door before the door is opened and also requires that cabin crew block the passenger aisle (usually with a food cart) when the flight deck door is opened. In the absence of a direct DGCA link, there was no immediate way for us to confirm whether these requirements are also mandatory in India.
Lufthansa’s Spohr shockingly also said that he was not aware of any of Lufthansa’s competitors that have such a procedure, which is surprising considering Lufthansa is one of the world’s top airlines, renowned for its safety standards, and Spohr qualified for a commercial pilot’s license himself. The fact is, while a determined pilot could still deliberately crash an aircraft even if a cabin crew member was inside the flight deck, this US FAA and DGCA measure does provide for another layer of safety, and which well might have prevented the Germanwings 4U9525 tragedy. What is also strange is that EU regulators who are often known to be among the toughest in the world—even in the smallest of matters, often berated for their bureaucratic bullheadedness, ignored this US FAA guideline over European skies.
So, if you’re flying an Indian carrier or a US one, you may rest a bit easier on this score. But as Indian’s national carrier Air India has proved in the past, rules can only be useful when they are adhered to. In at least one memorably scary case in 2013, one Air India pilot left the flight deck and called in a flight attendant, and reportedly the second pilot also left the deck and left another attendant in charge and this continued for a shocking 40 minutes by which time one of the attendants accidentally disconnected the autopilot. Since the matter was reported late to the DGCA and why which time the cockpit voice recordings were no longer available, the pilots claimed no such thing happened and that they had accidentally disconnected the autopilot because they were distracted in a conversation with the cabin crew. However, the commander and both the cabin crew were suspended for a few months by the DGCA. Even recently Air India has been in the news for safety violations by deploying lesser crew than required and allegedly violating flight safety norms by using a DGCA waiver on minimum cabin crew requirement on some of its long haul flights, though Air India denies the charge. Air India reportedly declares one door ‘unserviceable’ on some of its long-haul flights, which lowers the crew requirement. Media reports have earlier suggested that this most often happens on flights to New York and Chicago, where it allegedly operates flights with 11 crew as against a requirement of 14.
Air India operating perhaps the oldest active A320s in the world despite the lack of a stellar safety record and reported issues with these old A320s was also in the spotlight after news that the ill-fated Germanwings A320 was among the oldest in Lufthansa/Germanwings fleet.