Calls for Third Pilot to Avoid 'Murder-Suicides' After Germanwings Crash

A Lufthansa Airbus A318 plane with relatives of people who died in a plane crash in the French Alps, taxi at the Duesseldorf airport March 26, 2015.
A Lufthansa Airbus A318 plane with relatives of people who died in a plane crash in the French Alps, taxi at the Duesseldorf airport March 26, 2015. Lufthansa offered to fly relatives to the site of the a Germanwings Airbus A320 crash in southern France. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Short haul flights should have a third pilot to ensure there are never less than two people in the cockpit at a given time to avoid further murder-suicides in the aviation industry according to an airline founder and author of a book about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Ewan Wilson, a founder of a new airline in New Zealand and co-author of a book which concluded that the disappearance of MH370 was also caused by a murder-suicide, says the current evidence relating to the Germanwings flight 4U9525 crash points to the same conclusion, which could have been avoided with certain protocols.

A French prosecutor said today that the co-pilot on the flight, named as 28-year old Andreas Lubitz, deliberately lowered the plane's altitude when alone in the cockpit. In an audio recording from the cockpit which was recovered after the crash, Lubitz is heard breathing normally and he remains silent until the point of impact. Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin told press that no distress signal was sent out, and the pilot - who is thought to have left the cockpit to use the toilet - can be heard banging on the door.

Lufthansa, the company that owns low-cost airline Germanwings, held a press conference this afternoon in which the chief executive Carsten Spohr said we must assume the plane was deliberately flown into the ground.

He also said there was no company protocol to ensure that a member of the flight crew is present in the cockpit when the co-pilot or pilot leaves.

The September 11 terror attacks led to increased security in the cockpits of Airbus aircraft, and the doors now cannot be opened without a code, learned off by heart by the air crew. Anyone inside the cockpit can however override this entry, locking themselves inside, which appears to be what happened with flight 4U9525 according to the French prosecutor.

This was a point acknowledged at today's press conference. Spohr said that no systems could prevent an event such as the override, which he called an "enigma". He called the crash "a tragic individual event".

Wilson - who was convicted of fraud following the 1996 collapse of budget airline Kiwi Travel International Airlines which he founded in 1994 - says that if airlines had a mandatory third pilot for short haul flights then there would always be two people in the cockpit when the plane is airborne, mitigating the risk of a pilot murder-suicide or terror attack. Alternatively, in the United States, there must be another member of the cabin crew in the cockpit if one pilot leaves, ensuring that no one is ever alone at the controls.

"A simple solution to negate this ever happening again is to require no less than two in cockpit at any one time. For the short to medium haul flights that would mean the employment of a second officer so if somebody got up to take a break then at least there's a second person in the cockpit and we know that actually saves lives."

"One of the best examples was a Japan airlines crash 30 years ago where the captain suffering from mental health issues tried to crash short of landing, and the engineer and first flight officer was able to overpower him. Although the aeroplane had a very bad landing and some people died, it saved a number of lives."

Wilson adds that while airlines would probably push back against this due to the demand for cheap fares and the added cost a third officer would bring, the public want to get safely to their destinations, and it is important to ensure that "150 passengers are not in the hands of just one pilot who as we can see could be suffering from mental health."

However, he points out that while the job of a pilot can be taxing due to long working hours followed by long periods of free time on the ground, there are not necessarily more mental health issues within the industry than in the general population.

"I don't think it's a point of there being a higher occurrence in pilots, but my point is they're in a position of such responsibility that we've got to try to mitigate and plan for the rogue pilot element."

He does say however there is still controversy surrounding issues of mental illness in the industry.

"Mental health still has a stigma. If I was an airline pilot and I walked into the flight manager's office and said I've been feeling very depressed, before I finish the sentence I think I'd be grounded. So there is that culture where you're not encouraged to express that. The airlines will say that's not true, but it is true."

Chris Yates, an aviation consultant, thinks the idea of a third pilot is unrealistic. "The fact of the matter is the accountants that run aviation these days would very quickly poopoo any suggestion of adding to the cost of the airline by adding that extra person in the cockpit."

"There may be public support but public support can be measured in micro seconds and although there will be initially a bunch of calls for such steps to be taken, the public's interest in the issue will pretty soon die down."

Screening for mental health on the other hand needs to get much "better, much quicker", he says. "Its really going to hammer the reputation of both of the carriers quite frankly. It's not a thought that anybody should have to try and counter, the possibility of a pilot, a very highly trained pilot, doing an airliner, its not a thought that any of us would like to consider."

"One of the ways to deal with that is to relax the controls that automatically would lock one or the other out of the cockpit." The ability for the person in the cockpit to override the release needs to be eliminated," he adds.