Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Is the 2 crew-members policy after Germanwings air-crash really effective?

Most aviation authorities have implemented the new policy that there must be at least two crew-members (one of which is at least a pilot) in the cockpit at all times from now on. The reason for this new policy is the Germanwings air-crash on March the 24th of 2015. Is this policy effective in regard to the cause of the crash? I believe it is not, although I believe that the policy might work in a different situation. In this blogpost I will explain from a risk management perspective why I take this point-of-view.

Little disclaimer here; I am no aviations expert, nor do I claim to be. But I do know the Risk Management methodology and based on the information known to the public I look at this specific topic.

First things first...

I was horrified when I heard the news about this crash and even more when I heard what caused the crash. The fact that 150 lost their lives in the crash because one of them felt no other escape in life than to end his during the flight made me feel sad. Sad for the victims, and sad for the people that cared for them.

This topic is still rather new and is even, at the time of this writing, under investigation. I write this blogpost with the sorrow that the bereaved ones must feel in my mind and heart. If you are one of them, I wish you strength and I hope you will find your peace in the times ahead.

The facts known today

In short these are the facts in regard to the actual crash itself.
  • The co-pilot suffered from mental illness and his doctor stated that he was not fit for work.
  • There was no loop-back of the doctor's decision to the employer of the co-pilot due to the German law. Neither on the initiatives by the doctor, the co-pilot and the employer the medical diagnosis was asked for or shared.
  • The captain had left the cockpit and then the co-pilot locked the door from the inside.
  • The captain could not override the lock with the secret PIN, because the co-pilot disabled that too.
  • The door could not be opened with force as designed due to the 9-11 events after which these types of doors are mandatory. I find it a bit harsh knowing that a plane went down because of a control to prevent terrorism.
The source that explains the crash in detail can be found on Wikipedia Germanwings Flight 9525. For this blogpost of mine, the statements above are the most relevant from a risk management perspective.

I will continue to follow this topic and update the blogpost when needed.

The "solution"

The solution that has been implemented through a policy is the fact that at all times there needs to be at least two crew-members in the cockpit. And one of them also needs to be a pilot. The general thought here is that having a second member in the cockpit is preventing the fact that a pilot can become a danger to the airplane and its passenger by locking the door and taking over control. But if someone really wants to down a plane, is this control really effective? I think it is not that hard to take out the other crew-member first, before starting with whatever such a person plans to do.

Is it useless that a crew-member is present in the cockpit when one of the pilots leave for a second? Certainly not, because the other pilot might become unwell and thus the collegeau can warn the rest of the staff. On the other hand, how likely is it that the person outside of the door cannot unlock the door with the PIN in such a situation? I think not likely, because there is no incentive for the other pilot to block the PIN code right before becoming unwell. Nonetheless, the policy might prevent an unfortunate accident.

Probably the main reason might be the fact that the aviation industry wanted to restore the trust in their pilots by doing at least something. Truth to say, of the somethings that can be done, this something is at least not invasive for anyone.

A solution

I believe that a solution to prevent air-crashes like these are not to be taken inside the plane, but rather outside of the plane. The investigators have found a doctor's letter stating that the co-pilot was not fit (mentally) to fly. It is important to know that it is forbidden by German law for employers to obligate personal staff to share such medical information. And the main reason here is privacy.

I can understand that people should not be obligated to share any medical data with their employers. It might have negative trade-offs for personnel that suffer from a difficult time in their lives. But as with many things in life, I think that there is a 'but' here. A statement of a doctor about your ability to work is something different then a statement of a doctor about your ability to work and why.

The real solution here is that we should debate that for critical jobs like pilots at least a "fit to work" statement should be given by a doctor. Especially when you called in sick because of life changing events that can leave their scars. The why of the "not fit to work" is not relevant to an air-plane company, but the fact that a pilot can fly or should not can fly is. And implementing some regulations about job security for a pilot after a temporary "not fit to work" is an important control. The reason for this is to lessen the negative trade-off for personnel with such a solution. It encourages pilots to be honest, it enables employer to help their staff, it enhances air-safety and restores trust wherever it's needed.

In summary

The following can be said in summary concerning threats and their treatments.
  • The locked door: helps to prevent intruders entering the cockpit.
  • The PIN to open a locked door: helps to prevent a pilot of becoming locked out.
  • The blocked PIN to open a locked door: So the pilot in the cockpit can lock the door when the PIN has been compromised.
  • The second crew-member in the cockpit: can aid when assistance is needed when a pilot becomes unwell.
  • Sharing "fit to fly" statement from a doctor: helps to determine if a pilot should work or not.
Keep in mind that no solution can guarantee safety for the full 100%. Safety and security are no absolute values.

Thank you for your time to read my blog! What do you think about this topic? If you want to share your thoughts, please do so.

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