Friday, March 27, 2015

German airliner crash: A system error with a system solution?

From the Associated Press: Airlines around the world on Thursday began requiring two crew members to always be present in the cockpit, after details emerged that the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 had apparently locked himself in the cockpit and deliberately crashed the plane into the mountains below.

This represents an organization's typical response to a problem. The crash, which by all accounts was caused by a single deranged individual, has been perceived as the result of a “system error” and will be dealt with as such.

The idea that a flight attendant going into the cockpit whenever one of the pilots has to pee will prevent anything seems a bit absurd to me. How is a 5’2” 120 pound female flight attendant supposed to stop a 6’3” 210 pound pilot who is hell-bent on committing suicide by airplane?

When I tweeted a similar thought yesterday, someone suggested that she could simply sound an alarm and unlock the cockpit door. I suppose that’s true as long as the crazed pilot does not punch her in the face and knock her out or shoot her first.

After 9/11, a federal law was passed allowing pilots who were properly screened and trained to carry guns. If an armed pilot decides to commit suicide, an unarmed flight attendant will not be able to stop him or her.

According to a CNN story, Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who drove the plane into the mountain, had passed all medical tests before being hired. He recently had been given a medical leave note by a doctor. However, Lubitz ripped it up and threw it in a wastebasket in his apartment. He did not disclose the fact that he had been undergoing medical treatment to the airline. So much for self-reporting which is standard for pilots.

Why didn't the doctor tell the airline? I don't know. Do they have HIPAA in Germany?

The two people in the cockpit rule is smoke and mirrors. The airlines can now say that they have taken steps to prevent something like the Germanwings crash from happening again so don't worry, it's still safe to fly. But as I have pointed out, a determined maniac will be able to easily overcome this system solution.

I am reminded of the proposals like arm the janitors, arm the teachers, or give them shields or scissors that always come forward after school shootings.


1. "Two people in the cockpit” is not an FAA regulation but is said to be a standard policy for US airlines. It's purpose is not to prevent a suicide but to have someone available to let the other pilot back into the cockpit in case the pilot who did not leave passes out or is otherwise disabled.

2. The Germanwings incident represents an unintended consequence of reinforcing and locking cockpit doors after 9/11.


frankbill said...

Have to remember that there 5’2” 120 pound female pilots.

How about training crew members to look for signs of suicidal behavior.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Yes, and there are male flight attendants. My objection to the concept isn't about small female pilots.

According to the cockpit voice recordings, Lubitz was perfectly normal until the captain left the cockpit.

William Reichert said...

The authorities are always fighting the last problem with a solution which will create a new problem.
After 911 , they installed stormproof cockpit doors to prevent
passengers from storming the cockpit and taking over the plane.
Now we see that the secure door was what enabled the suicidal
pilot to lock himself in and calmly fly the plane into the side of a mountain. (AS YOU NOTED ABOVE)
A FEW YEARS ago it was a requirement that pneumonia be treated with antibiotics within one hour of arriving at the ER. Rather that fully evaluating sick patients to determine if they really had pneumonia, it became routine( mandatory) for ERdocs to initiate immediate treatment on almost anyone who presented with feeling bad so as to make sure nobody was given "delayed" Rx for pneumonia (even though there is no evidence that waiting 2 hours is a fatal laspe. ). Now today Dr. Obama lectured all the physicians in the USA about using antibiotics without "proven need". SO now I guess we should revert to only giving antibiotics to people with pneumonia who "really"have the disease instead of everyone who "might" have the disease.
No too long ago we were told that no one should be allowed to have pain. Every one was to be asked if they had pain on a scale of 1 to 10. And it was a sign of inhumane neglect if anyone reported even a "1". (Usually real pain was assigned the number 99 or 140)
Well, the docs got the message. Scripts increased. Now narcotic abuse and deaths from narcotics are a serious concern and now to get a MD license renewed in my state you have to take a 2 hour course on pain "management" (even if you do not have a federal
narcotic license number and never use narcotics).
And, guess what is being taught in this course? The physician is
now obligated to explain to the patient that the pain medicine he is prescribing is indeed NOT going to get rid of the pain. Only make the pain just bearable enough so as to not interfere with most ordinary
life functions. This is a nice way to say "ya gotta learn to live with it".
In the meantime,more forms have been developed to track the decisions of physicians in the use of narcotics and antibiotics.
Today's solution is tomorrow's problem.

frankbill said...

The more information that is coming out about Andreas Lubitz he should never been flying this plane. He is known to have had problems with depression while training to be a pilot.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

William, well said. I agree. I wrote about the pain problem last year []. It gets worse every day.

Frank, now there saying Lubitz had a vision problem that he hid from everyone too.

artiger said...

Not to highjack this thread, but how are we as physicians/providers able to square the privacy laws with the potential for public harm that such a patient poses?

Skeptical Scalpel said...

You can't. It seems Germany has a HIPAA-like rule too. The doc couldn't tell the airline that Lubitz was sick.

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