What we can learn from Germanwings

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A recovery crew surveys the crash site of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the Alps. All 150 on board were killed March 24 when the co-pilot intentionally crashed the plane. Photo courtesy of CNN.

Emily Yin, News Article

My dad always sends my family voicemails before he boards a plane, telling us he loves us and is proud of us. I used to think he was overly worried about what might happen on a flight. But the devastating crash of the Germanwings plane in the Alps on March 24 serves to remind us that safety on planes is never guaranteed and to help us prevent the same tragedy from happening again.

The plane’s co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, began the plane’s descent when he was alone in the cockpit, according to recordings on the plane recovered by investigators. The captain had gone on a bathroom break, and Lubitz locked him out. The recordings show that the captain tried to get back in but could not. Plane security systems allow entry into the cockpit by entering passcodes, but crew members inside can override the request.

A single pilot in a locked cockpit is the dictator of the plane, and this clearly should never be allowed. Two pilots should always be present in the cockpit, and not just to keep a homicidal pilot in check, but to also offer back-up if a pilot has a stroke, heart attack or another incapacitation.

This safety measure is required for U.S. airlines, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But strangely, it’s not required internationally; most carriers only require the pilots to remain on the flight deck. Not until the aftermath of the Germanwings crash did major airlines in Canada, Germany, New Zealand introduce the rule. The question is, why isn’t having two pilots in the cockpit at all times a universal requirement? It shouldn’t have taken the loss of 150 lives to figure it out.

After the 9/11 attacks, regulators made the right decision to make the cockpit more secure with lockable, armored doors. Some point to the upgraded doors as a problem, arguing that this makes it more difficult for a crew member to regain entry. But it’s just as unsafe to have unlocked doors accessible to virtually everyone on the plane. If two or more pilots are present in the cockpit at all times, there should never be the worry of regaining entry in the first place. It will be more costly for airlines to have three or more pilots per flight, but certainly not more costly than the death of passengers and crew members.

We can’t anticipate every situation, but we can certainly try to. Better safety measures would make everyone feel more comfortable flying, and give my dad assurance that after leaving a voicemail, he will always be able to come home and say it in person.