The tragic events of this week are still resonating around the world. The loss of the Germanwings Airbus A320 appears to have resulted from the actions of a lone, rogue pilot. Such an event has occurred before in aviation’s history, but it is an extremely rare occurrence and air travel remains extremely safe. That being said, statistics don’t relieve the anguish but perhaps they offer some balance and perspective at this dreadful time when calm heads are called for.
This event is so complex and layered that it evokes a broad range of thoughts and emotions. Once again, from the outset we had the usual suspects masquerading as ‘aviation experts’ espousing a range of theories before rescue crews had even reached the crash site. One by one they stirred up speculation and suspicion about every option from terrorism to a defective aircraft. All of which now seem to have been ill-founded.
As the days passed and evidence was gathered, the official agencies began to release a profile of a troubled individual occupying the right hand seat on the flight deck that day. His actions have left me staggered. Passengers place implicit trust in their crew, just as pilots place that trust in one another. The combination of this betrayal and the scale of the event have made for a combination that is hard to comprehend. That being said, as a former paramedic I saw enough patients suffering from mental illness to understand that they are not necessarily operating from the same ‘baseline’ as the rest of us nor are they able to consistently recognise this fact. Their perspective can be so distorted that it seems like a foreign language to what we consider to be a rational mind.
So what happens now?
Already ‘safeguards’ are being offered to prevent this taking place in the future, but knee-jerk reactions are not what is needed at this time. One shark attack does not necessitate the extinction of the species. Too often the hurried implementation of a new measure has proven to come with its own potential hazards and knock-on effects. These need to be considered in a balanced manner, with clear heads and hearts - not gut reactions.
A range of new procedures are already being suggested, varying from changing crew complements to retinal scans on flight deck door access panels. A ‘two person in the cockpit rule’ may offer some degree of security and a level of passenger reassurance if implemented correctly. The relieving crew member will need vetting, training and the appropriate expertise and I suspect not every flight attendant necessarily wishes to perform such a duty and bear the responsibility that accompanies the task.
We must also bear in mind that these are potential safeguards against a relatively isolated event and down the road a different kind of isolated event will occur and a universal call for action will be heard again. Unfortunately no human undertaking can be made 100 per cent safe and secure; we can merely endeavour to reduce the risk.
To date, aviation has a proud history of being proactive in fields such as human factors training and crew resource management (CRM). It has never shirked its responsibility in the wake of tragedy and always sought to learn from errors and introduce prevention strategies. Now it is being forced to take the lead in the societal issue of mental health in the workplace. There are already some measures in place in airlines such as peer support networks, but once again, the individual needs to be able to be cognisant of the problem in the first place.
Furthermore, the issues that appear to have sealed Germanwings 4U9525 fate are not confined to aviation. Surgeons, train drivers, emergency personnel and ship captains are similarly exposed to the pressure of everyday life in an increasingly high-pressure world. Financial issues, relationships and family responsibilities are universal and can ebb and flow through a lifetime and a career. Far greater minds than mine are undoubtedly examining how best these issues can be managed in the future.
For the moment, we need to maintain perspective and recognise the relatively rare nature of the Germanwings tragedy when set against the backdrop of how many millions of passengers two-crew flight decks routinely convey safely every year. At the heart of this tragedy, we need to maintain our trust. As flight crew, the trust in the other pilot that sits beside us and as a passenger, the trust in the professional pilots that are dedicated to our safe passage. Therein lies the way forward.