There’s not much one can say about the Germanwings 9525 crime (we can’t really call it an “accident”, can we?) that hasn’t already been covered in the commentary, speculation, and indictments which have poured forth since news of the tragedy first broke. But looking at the long-term effect on those of us who fly for a living might be worthwhile, because a storm is coming.
I’m not talking about an atmospheric phenomenon, but rather a storm of ill-conceived responses to what is universally acknowledged as an irrational act. If history is any guide, one of the sad legacies of the Germanwings crash will fall on professional pilots who had absolutely nothing to do with what happened in the Alps last week. But we may very well end up paying for it — probably forever.
How? By government edict, as usual.
I’m talking about the blowback from the FAA, EASA, and other government agencies. While there are plenty of rational people in public service, they don’t seem to hold much sway anymore. It’s a shame, because when the families of those who perished in this homicide start to organize, they’re going to clamor loudly into TV cameras for changes. The media will lap it up like an orphaned puppy getting his first drink of water in days.
Politicians, being concerned primarily about image rather than substance, will feel the pressure to “do something”, and do it big. There’s always another election just around the corner, after all. And thus begins the long downward slide of nonsense into our aircraft — just as it happened after 9/11 (hello TSA, goodbye tweezers), the Colgan 3407 accident (welcome aboard, 1500 hour rule), Go! Flight 1002 (sleep apnea screening), and various others incidents.
People like my friend Eric Auxier have already written about the lack of responsible journalistic practices which typically follow an accident. His points are well-taken, but they only scratch the surface of the repercussions this homicide may hold in store. The just-do-something folks in Washington and the media will be out for major changes. Not being pilots, they won’t concern themselves with all the ramifications, but that’s a minor nit. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear calls for cameras in the cockpit, mandates for ground-based override of the pilot, recurrent Federal psychological testing of all aviators, and who knows what else.
I’m not the only one who feels we’re headed somewhere unpleasant. Paul Bertorelli penned an editorial in today’s edition of AVweb where he suggested that progress on 3rd class medical reform — one of the few bright spots in the regulatory firmament — is likely to be derailed.
And now comes this tragedy in the Alps to give new sustenance to the notion that more screening means higher safety and one that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with regard to the Third Class requirement. Over the weekend, I was sweeping the think-piece coverage on the Germanwings crash and came across this quote in The New York Times: â€œThe screening process for pilots â€˜really falls short for people who are involved in the publicâ€™s safety,â€™ said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessments for corporations and universities. The practice of screening only once a year is a particular problem, he said, because any number of life events â€” the breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one or other setbacks â€” can affect mental functioning.â€œ
What a surprise. A guy who makes his living doing psyche evaluations thinks there arenâ€™t nearly enough of them, just as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine sees a nation of sleep-deprived zombies desperately in need of their tender mercies.
AIN editor Matt Thurber’s crystal ball contains a future where pilots will have to surrender any pretense of privacy if they wish to aviate:
Iâ€™m going to step out on a limb here and predict that someoneâ€”either the FAA or legislatorsâ€”is going to push for new regulations allowing the FAA to tap pilotsâ€™ EMR [electronic medical records] data to see whether pilots are being honest on their medical certificate applications. Iâ€™m willing to bet that this is happening now, but we just havenâ€™t been privy to these discussions.
Whether this is a good idea or not will not affect the push to make this happen. The fact that it would be a gross invasion of privacy will not affect those who think this is a good idea. We know from accident history that even full disclosure within the current system doesnâ€™t always weed out the occasional pilot who collapses and sometimes even dies while in flight, but that will not stop efforts to tie EMR to aviation medical certification.
Technology is a boon to mankind, but it also contains the seeds of destruction of privacy. Weâ€™ve given up privacy in our use of social media and computers in general, but are we willing to allow the government to dig into our medical records as a means of potential accident prevention?
Donâ€™t be surprised when this happens. Itâ€™s just a matter of time.
Another voice I respect, American Airlines captain Chris Manno, sees the same winds blowing, so I don’t think I’m being paranoid.
As is always the case after an airline disaster, the media and shortly thereafter, regulators rush to propose a quick but ill-advised â€œfix.â€
In this case, the proposed quick fix falls into one of two useless but unavoidable categories: technology and regulation.
In the first case, technology, the spectrum of bad ideas runs from remote control to cockpit access override.
Should this be the way we go about making major changes in the aviation industry? Even if one felt that the final result was worthwhile, I don’t believe a thoughtful individual could honestly answer yes. While we’re all aware that regulations are often “written in blood”, the good ones are not created in haste and certainly without forethought as to the repercussions. But nobody wants to say “no” to the family of a passenger lost in one of these incidents when there’s a camera rolling. And in today’s world, there’s always a camera present. It’s good publicity to have “done something”, so the pols in D.C. will invariably declare themselves on board with change, consequences (read: pilots) be damned.
Compare the 1500 hour rule instituted after the Cogan crash to the careful, almost minimalist regulations of years past. Part 91 is a perfect example of quality, measure-twice-cut-once rulemaking, an easy read whose contents are relatively simple and straightforward. Germanwings 9525 is more likely to result in an aviation ObamaCare than anything capable of preventing a pilot-induced homicide.
The thing most likely to head off a future tragedy isn’t more Federal rulemaking, but rather a hazard-free path for stressed pilots to get help without putting their careers on the line. MD-80 captain Mark Berry wrote in-depth about just this sort of asset in Airways News. He said, “Airline pilot mental health moved to the forefront in June 2011 with a program of trained volunteers called Project Wingman. This is a joint venture between my company and the pilot union. Itâ€™s led by Captain Charlie Curreri, who also a licensed professional counselor. The Project Wingman team helped establish a 24/7 confidential emergency mental health hotline (817) 823-7965 in case a pilot needs to address a mental health issue about him or herself, or is concerned about another crewmemberâ€™s psychological well being. This programâ€™s success is measured though numerous success stories. Names are withheld in confidence, but Project Wingman Director Curreri assures me that many pilots have received the help theyâ€™ve needed without fear of reprisal or loss of license, especially when it came to taking medications for mental health reasons.”
These kinds of programs work. They’re low on overhead and provide a positive path forward for those who need them. They aren’t even limited to mental health issues. My company participates in a program called ASAP, which encourages voluntary reporting of safety issues and events that come to the attention of pilots. Employees voluntarily report safety issues even though they may involve a regulatory violation, and in exchange both the FAA and the employer waive any sanctions or enforcement. It’s a win-win, and it doesn’t require thousands of pages of rules (or dollars).
For some reason, programs like ASAP and Project Wingman don’t seem to satisfy the “do something NOW” crowd. I’ve never understood why. But there’s one thing I do know: our industry is on the wrong flight plan, folks. It’s time for a reroute toward sunnier skies, and it’s going to take something beyond media-savvy window dressing to get us there.