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Lives and liberties

1 April 2015 By Edward Hadas

Air travel is extremely safe, and getting safer. Last week’s Germanwings disaster is unlikely to change either trend. Still, it certainly seems that a mistake was made in the case of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who is thought to have purposely crashed an Airbus A320 into a mountain. He had been treated for “suicidal tendencies” before starting training as a pilot.

Fatalities from commercial aircraft accidents have been falling steadily for decades. Aviation Safety Institute statistics show that the average annual death toll was 1,224 in the 1990s. For the last three years, the annual average was 477. In contrast, the World Health Organization counts 1.2 million annual deaths from road accidents.

The decline in flying fatalities comes while the number of passenger miles flown worldwide has been increasing, at a 5 percent annual rate for the last decade. Much of the growth has come in developing economies, which often struggle to maintain the sort of sophisticated infrastructure needed for safe air travel. Yet they have clearly made air safety a priority.

The focus is merited. The airline industry is well aware of the widespread latent unease about flying, so it does everything it can to prevent accidents and to learn from them when they do occur. The Germanwings crash, which might have been prevented if Lubitz had not been alone in a locked cockpit, has already changed some European airlines’ procedures and may eventually lead to new rules on cockpit door locks.

Such changes to work practices and equipment are welcome. The best way, though, to avoid repeats of the terrible events of March 24 is to make it harder for potentially dangerous people to become or to remain pilots. A seemingly obvious start is to be firmer about disqualifying people for psychological reasons.

It is much less obvious, however, to decide what sort of mental problem should disqualify someone from performing a pilot’s job safely. Lufthansa’s flying school seems to have made the wrong decision when it let Lubitz re-enter its training programme after he disclosed that he had suffered an episode of severe depression. But that judgment is easier to make in retrospect. He recovered enough to pass the psychological tests required for pilot certification. And it is not certain that depressive illness caused him to act so irrationally. It could have been something else.

In general, it is all to the good that most employers no longer automatically assume that mental health issues disqualify workers. People in fragile condition need help, not punishment or gossip. Doctors in Germany are not allowed to discuss a patient’s mental condition with outsiders. Even where it is permitted, professionals generally, and rightly, do not want to sow panic or make delicate situations worse. For the same reasons, friends and family are usually reluctant to discuss any concerns with a troubled person’s employer.

Nor is psychological instability a fixed condition. It can be relieved, but it can also be induced or aggravated. Employers have a responsibility, especially when positions carry heavy responsibilities for the lives of others. They should avoid uncompetitive pay, which can deter good candidates. They should also shun overly stressful working conditions, which can bring out weaknesses.

There is no sign that Lufthansa was cutting corners on any of these factors, relative to current industry standards. On the contrary, it is widely considered a good airline to work for. However, the whole industry is working pilots harder and paying them less. The rise of low-cost carriers has increased the pressure on everyone to be more productive. Regulators set safety limits on time in the air, but the carriers still have a good amount of discretion.

While the initial annual salary for co-pilots at Lufthansa is about 60,000 euros, American regional airlines begin as low as $16,000. That pay level is simply not enough for a high-skilled life-critical profession. A more subtle risk is skimping on training. The challenge is especially great in Asia, where the rapid increase in the number of planes has not been matched by a comparable commitment to crew education.

In some industries, a 99.9 percent safety net may be enough to tolerate small flaws in training and hiring practices. Such a low risk of failure also may excuse the odd excess in work-related stress. In airlines, however, that is inadequate. The Germanwings crash shows that the wholly humane and respectful approach is inappropriate for the airline industry. It may also be wrong in some other walks of life where so much loss can arise.

Standards of mental health, as with a pilot’s eyesight or heart-health, have to be so high that it is reasonable to exclude candidates who may never cause any trouble. The lives of the innocent take precedence over the job security of any individual.


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