Parthian has read much prescriptive punditry following the horrendous impulse of the Germanwings co-pilot to act out his recurrent, if not obsessive, fantasies– of destroying himself, an expensive aircraft, his anonymity, and 149 strangers, in that order. Reactions have ranged from resignation (Gourevitch, New Yorker) to hi-tech drone remedies (Cassidy, id), to palliative but practical measures (immediate change in protocol to mandate 2 crew members in the cockpit during flight). Rational risk assessors tell us that the incident represents an infinitesimal and irreducible residue of hazard after all other economically sensible prophylactics have been applied. Commentators with a broader perspective see worthwhile prospects from investing in:
- ground controller overrides
- fully automated (drone) pilotage
- more frequent and intensive mental health exams and background checks… etc.
Parthian proposes two practical measures that are immediately available, at a more acceptable cost relative to expected benefit than adoption of the U.S. crew protocol might entail.
First, accept that powerful incentives to deny or conceal mental issues from employers and licensing authorities cannot be eliminated, however low the rate of impulsive pilot suicide may be. The emphasis must be upon impulsive self-destruction, because the Lubitz event’s most powerful teaching is that many, probably most, suicides do not fit the commonly held scenario of mounting despair reaching a tipping point or crisis, whereupon the dam of self-control is breached. It is much more likely that they represent long-festering suicidal ideation, confronted by an unexpected and irresistible temptation. Motive + opportunity.
Partial Remedy (with collateral benefits):
Revise protocols, to require the Pilot and First Officer to follow the cabin crew as they perform the seatbelt, tray tables, and stowage inspection after the doors close. Their duty is to make eye contact and exchange a few words with at least one passenger, in every X (time studies to determine number) rows. This can be managed efficiently enough to cost little time, although the pre-take off checklists and other tasks must be delayed pro tanto. Parthian’s unverifiable but confident assumption is that the next Andreas Lubitz would be deterred at some significant (but indeterminate) margin from acting out a suicidal impulse because of his or her fresh and immediate encounters with trusting passengers (rather than “the passengers” generically considered).
Second, understanding that fresh personal encounters will not entirely foreclose another Lubitz-like incident, improve cockpit safety by adopting an arguably “riskier” alternative strategy to the current U.S. protocol. The alternative eliminates a cost– impairment of the burdensome duties of the cabin crew.