Saturday, March 28, 2015

Germanwings 4U9525: The art of asking the right questions

The crash of the Germanwings flight earlier this week is still dominating much of the (Western) news media. It is not just the fact that it happened with a well known Airline with a good safety record (Germanwings is a part of Lufthansa) right in the middle of Europe – in fact one of us sat on a Lufthansa A320 just a day before the crash. But it is also the absence of any good explanation as to the cause of the crash.

Now that story has evolved over the last hours. First, we learned from the voice recorder of the black box that the co-pilot was alone in the cockpit and did not open the door for the pilot to come back after his toilet break. It was interesting to see how Lufthansa, the prosecutors and most media then jumped to the conclusion that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane.

While that is indeed one option, only few reports raised the question why the flight data recorder – the other black box – could not be found. Or why when it was found the hard disk with the data was missing. Because only those data would clearly document which actions the co-pilot actually took while alone in the cockpit. It is still conceivable, that we saw a repeat of an incident on a Lufthansa A321 just five months ago when iced sensors sent the plane on route from Bilbao to Munich on a similar descent and could only be saved by the pilot switching off the autopilot.

And maybe it was not suicidal intent but other forms of incapacitation that made the co-pilot behave that way. After all, as we finally learned today, he had a history of psychological problems and should in fact have been on sick leave rather than flying.

Nearly unanimously, most commentators jumped to the conclusion that his medical condition just proves that the plane was brought down intentionally by a mentally sick individual. And in particular Lufthansa appeared to be relieved to identify a rare singular individual case as the reason for the accident – rather than technical or other reasons which might have put the company in a much trickier position.

Or does it? After all, air crashes have a long history as case material and illustrative incidents in the business ethics debate. Even if we assume that an individual is to blame - more often than not such behavior occurs in a specific organizational context which normally leads to this behavior. One of the most recent examples is certainly the 2009 Crash of the Colgan Air  commuter plane in Buffalo (similar to this week’s case, a supplier of Continental Airways), which initially all looked like pilot error. However, as a brilliant PBS documentary illustrates, this incident revealed a host of unethical practices and infractions not just with the airline but in fact with the wider industry.

So, this is the time to ask the right questions. The first of which would be to get some more insight as to why the co-pilot did conceal his mental illness from his employer. Does Germanwings have a procedure for this? Do they just fire people like him, when such condition is revealed? Do they care?

A next question would be how on earth his depression could have gone unnoticed by his colleagues? After all, pilots spend a lot of time together and observe each other from up-close. How could it be that the pilot was totally comfortable to leave this co-pilot in charge for a couple of minutes? What does this say about the culture at Germanwings? Does anybody care about how his colleagues are doing?

The more important questions would look at the wider context of work in the airline. Germanwings recently had strikes as Lufthansa tries to impose a low wage no frills-system of wages and working conditions on their low cost branch, which competes with the likes of Easyjet or Ryanair. This is an object of fierce dispute and Lufthansa itself is in a middle of a merciless battle with their pilots. Just last week, thousands of flights on Lufthansa were cancelled due to a strike. This climate does not exactly encourage a young aspiring pilot – on the way to live his childhood dream – to expect an empathetic reception when broaching his personal issues.

The problematic working conditions at other low cost carriers are by now common currency. So the question we have to ask is in how far Lufthansa has made its subsidiary Germanwings in nothing but a clone of Ryanair and the others. This raises the question if we are actually talking about an environment where someone with mental health issues would think the last thing to disclose to his employer and to hope for empathy would be his personal troubles and problems?

Overall then, there are a lot of questions to ask to Lufthansa, the investigating bodies, and in fact the media. But there are also larger questions unanswered. European pilots associations now openly challenge why so many facts of an ongoing investigation are leaked to the press. Or why certain questions, most notably about the flight data recorder have not been addressed. One cannot help but having some uncomfortable reminiscences with the disappearance of MH370 in South East Asia about a year ago. As even the CEO of Emirates, Sir Tim Clark (far from being one of the inevitable conspiracy theorists in these incidents), has very vocally set out, the way the public gets (mis-)informed about those disasters raises serious questions. Questions, to which we ultimately need an answer.

Image copyright, Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

1 comment:

  1. The missing of MH370 remains a mystery until now. What is Boeng doing about this - since the aeroplane is equipped with sophisticated system? A year has passed by the way.


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