Do Something!

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: “The screening process for pilots ‘really falls short for people who are involved in the public’s safety,’ 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 — the breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one or other setbacks — can affect mental functioning.“

What a surprise. A guy who makes his living doing psyche evaluations thinks there aren’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:

I’m going to step out on a limb here and predict that someone—either the FAA or legislators—is going to push for new regulations allowing the FAA to tap pilots’ EMR [electronic medical records] data to see whether pilots are being honest on their medical certificate applications. I’m willing to bet that this is happening now, but we just haven’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 doesn’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. We’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?

Don’t be surprised when this happens. It’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 “fix.”

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. It’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 crewmember’s psychological well being. This program’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 they’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.

  27 comments for “Do Something!

  1. March 31, 2015 at 5:25 am

    A thoughtful article as always, Ron. Coincidentally, I read it immediately after this story on NPR:

    Early on in the article, a Harvard professor makes a comment that contradicts the point of view of the forensic psychologist from Bertorelli’s piece advocating for more psych screening: “As a field, we’re not very good at accurately predicting who is at risk for suicidal behavior,” says Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard. He says studies show that mental health professionals “perform no better than chance,” when it comes to predicting which patients will attempt suicide.

    I suspect it would require an overwhelming chorus of articulate dissent to overcome the compelling siren song of “do something”.

    • March 31, 2015 at 11:16 am

      An interesting thought experiment. If experts are in disagreement, who do the lawmakers believe? Based on past experience, the answer seems to be “whichever is calling for the most dramatic change”. Legislation is like medicine: there are always side effects. Unlike physicians, who are trained to carefully consider the repercussions, I don’t think the people sitting on the dais in those committee hearings are concerned with such things.

      Well, we do have a large General Aviation Caucus in Congress. Perhaps we’ll get to see how well it works on our behalf.

      • April 7, 2015 at 7:55 am

        I think it is not necessarily who is calling for the most dramatic change but the one who is screaming the loudest no matter what they are asking for.

        • April 7, 2015 at 9:56 am

          The squeaky wheel does tend to get the grease — and the federal funding….

  2. Jenn_Niffer
    March 31, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Well said Ron! These “do something now” reactions happen elsewhere in the aviation industry as well. For example, thanks to the airline/airport employees who were engaged in gun smuggling in Atlanta, there is now a real push to run every airport employee through a full TSA screening every day. (At my airport they’re currently doing spot-checks. I had to have my hands screened for explosive residue on my way to grab a cup of coffee last week!) Aside from the time and inconvenience, imagine the cost. Is it really necessary? No one objects to improving safety. All we ask is that any changes be made in a rational, thoughtful way by those who truly understand the business, the people involved and the ramifications.

    • March 31, 2015 at 11:24 am

      Exactly! I wish it was limited to aviation, but the reactionary tendencies extend into every segment of our lives.

      Your story reminds me of the time the Vice President came to SNA. His 757 was parked on the ramp and the whole airport was shut down. Despite countless certificates, ratings, badges, background checks, and security clearances, I was stuck outside the fence, watching sharp shooters patrolling the hangar rooftops. Then I noticed a large fuel truck being driven up to the 757 by a young guy from the FBO who couldn’t have been more than 21 years old. No escort, nobody with him. Just a kid and his 10,000 gallons of jet fuel cruising the ramp.

  3. Bob
    March 31, 2015 at 7:29 am

    Very well articulated Ron. There is a mentality among regulators, that if we just had enough rules, the world could be made completely safe and benign. In my experience people tend to follow rules based on their own sliding scale of tolerance. All you need do is to go for a ride in your car to see large portions of the driving population exceed speed limits and roll through stop signs. I often wonder how much truth (or untruth) there is in the average airmen medical questionnaire. Particularly when your livelihood depends on the answers. Even the FAA seems to understand this (while not really admitting it) by allowing some anonymous or protected reporting of violations for safety purposes. It seems to me that with most if not all government regulation, it could be stated: The emperor is as naked as a jay bird. Or put another way; as one Ostrich said to to the other: “The world be a lot less frightening if we could just cover it with another layer of sand.”

    • March 31, 2015 at 11:34 am

      The sliding scale of tolerance is inevitable when virtually everything is a crime. I think you made a very astute observation in noting that the voluntary reporting systems are, in a way, a governmental admission of the problem. But I don’t think you could ever get legislators to say such a thing to grieving family members in front of bank of TV cameras. They seem to prefer the extra layer of sand.

  4. Jan Jansen
    March 31, 2015 at 7:33 am

    A refreshing voice of reason amid the ill-informed yammering of the media. Hoping, but probably in vain, that this doesn’t derail the elimination of the 3rd class medical.

    • March 31, 2015 at 11:57 am

      Thank you, Jan. I am right there with you. Third class medical reform has the potential to revitalize (perhaps “preserve” is the better term) general aviation in a big way.

      You know, I was looking at results from a recent aerobatic contest here in southern California. There were 18 pilots competing, if I recall correctly, and it is being touted as a major success. Six or seven years ago there would have been 40-45 aviators there. Activity is down, airports are threatened (SMO, anyone?), and we need third class reform badly.

  5. March 31, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Excellent piece, Ron.

    I agree, we must all “Brace For Impact” as we face an inevitable tsunami of ill-conceived, politically expedient bandaid fixes that will create far more problems than they solve. We saw this with the Colgan Air aftermath, and we see it dominating FAR 177 “Crew Rest” requirements.

    All while the preliminary investigation into Germanwings is barely under way.

    I am still not 100% convinced that “The First Officer Dunnit.” We have the tiniest morsel of information, improperly leaked, and the media has taken this ball and ran with it, past the goal line, out of the stadium and out into the freakin’ wilderness! Hypoxia, other mechanical issues, could all be playing a part we don’t yet fully understand.

    As Mark L. Berry so eloquently stated in his article, pilots are human and face personal tragedies all the time, just like everyone else. Simply because they have faced a mental challenge some time in their life does not an unsafe or psychotic pilot make.

    I am glad you mention the programs such as ASAP and Project Wingman. Both excellent systems. And YES! Systems that are already in place, helping the troubled pilot to help themselves, and to improve safety–all with OUT the help of meddling government bureaucracies!

    Thanks for your article

    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

    • Bob
      March 31, 2015 at 10:00 am

      I couldn’t agree more! There’s too many unknowns to conclude murder/suicide before an investigation has barely begun.

    • March 31, 2015 at 11:52 am

      Thanks Eric. You’re right, the investigation is not complete.

      Dennis Prager wrote a great post about the Germanwings crash where he noted that depression and lack of conscience are not the same thing. It would be so unfortunate if everyone who suffered from depression, past or present, was viewed as a homicide waiting to happen.

      I have been very impressed with programs like ASAP and hope we see more of them. It’s about the healthiest way I can think of to deal with safety issues. When you remove the career hazard, it’s amazing how open, truthful, and cooperative people on all sides suddenly become!

    • March 31, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      Sorry, correction: 🙂

  6. March 31, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Recently, the advocates of the universal human right for self defence, RKBA/2A movement, and rape survivors were fairly successful in derailing the terrible and ill-advised government blowback in fallout of tragedies that gun-grabbers used to exploit for their wicked ends easily. Perhaps the aviators need to learn what has changed. It was an article of common sense that the public is much too ignorant of the way guns save lives, and it was impossible to stem the tide of Brady fascism because of the “ratchet” effect: they only pass the laws that disarm the crime victims, never the criminals. Not so much anymore! So there is a hope. We “merely” need to understand how the public may be made to understand that freedoms such as freedom to fly are worth it and how the government is taking them from us, and then act upon this knowledge. Say, isn’t AOPA supposed to fund a think tank just for this kind of work?

    • March 31, 2015 at 3:47 pm

      It’s not a think tank per se, but rather a lobbying group that advocates on behalf of GA interests in Washington D.C.

      Advocates of 2nd amendment freedoms have a couple of advantages over general aviation: first, their rights are specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Second, they are a much larger group. The NRA has about 5 million members, whereas AOPA — admittedly just one of a number of aviation groups — sports about 400,000. But hey, any hope is worth pursuing!

  7. Karlene
    March 31, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Ron, Very nice post!!

    Most US Airlines run the ASAP program, but it’s never been used for mental health or personal problems. But the point is, yes, there are venues of self reporting in place. Why not mental health? I love the Wingman idea. I’m going to push for that at my airline.

    I think that since airlines are moving to more self training and home school, we are becoming isolated. No more power of community coming together annually for recurrent. This isolation can be a huge issue with stress and depression, as you feel you are alone, your family doesn’t get it…etc. But coming together and talking about issues often diffuses them and helps deal with life. But normal stress was not brought down that plane.

    Unlike Eric, I am certain this first officer did this. But I don’t think he was intentionally murdering anyone. He wasn’t thinking about passengers. And the fact that the medical profession had him in their hands and diagnosed him, and they allowed him to get into a plane, that is the problem. If there is a sign, and meds were prescribed, etc, the FAA should be notified… no secrets on that.

    But even psychiatrists will tell you how difficult it is to diagnose a mental health patient. So, screenings won’t do what they think they will. Just a feel good to the public. Colgan had nothing to do with flight time, but that was a panacea to change hours.

    We shall see what happens. But it’s pretty frustrating that they knew this guy needed help and yet nothing was done to keep him out of a plane.

    • March 31, 2015 at 8:12 pm

      Re: “Colgan had nothing to do with flight time”, you’re exactly right. Anthony Foxx and others who wrote the rule knew flight time was not a factor. But the pressure was on to “do something”, so they pulled the trigger on it anyway, and as a result the ATP certificate went from $1,500 to $15,000 (source). The industry was already in dire straits. I wonder what increasing the cost of training by a factor of TEN will do to it. This is exactly the thing I’d like to see sensible heads work to avoid.

      I would argue that the existing aeromedical certification system has plenty of blame in this tragedy… but not the way most people think. I don’t blame medical examiners for failing to keep him out of the cockpit. Rather, I see the system as forcing him into hiding his condition. If the FO had options to get treatment without destroying his career, would he have acted differently? Nobody can say for sure, but the odds are good that more people would have been aware of his condition because he would have had nothing to lose by disclosing it.

      As you noted, psychology is not an exact science and doesn’t have a 100% success rate in identifying or treating people. My concern is that the push for “more safety” will lead those in government to throw the baby out with the bathwater in myriad ways, which will harm all of us while contributing absolutely nothing but window dressing to the real problem.

      Good discussion we have going here — I hope you do push for a ASAP/Wingman style mental health program at your airline!

  8. Susan Wong
    April 1, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Ron, the moment you made the comment about Aviation Obamacare, all respect was lost.
    Here you are arguing your point, in a rather articulate manner, and you step in the doo doo, of political rhetoric, where the country is pretty much decided upon ideological lines. That senseless commentary would have earned you a place in Fox News, but not in a scientific journal.
    Stick to what you know best.
    Dr. Susan Wong

    • April 1, 2015 at 10:34 am

      I respect your opinion Susan, and agree that there’s a lot of polarization in general, and regarding Obamacare in particular…. but I would point out that this site is neither a Fox News or a scientific journal. It’s more along the lines of General Aviation op-ed, analysis, education, and advocacy.

      I think the reference was apropos because whatever your feelings on healthcare policy, it’s hard to call the ACA a well-written or executed law. The insurance commissioner in my state (a Democrat and supporter of Obamacare, for what it’s worth) called the law as written a “real disaster”. Max Baucus and other prominent supporters have admitted the same.

      I’d prefer to see that sort of chaos avoided in aviation, because with the hits our industry has already taken, we cannot afford any missteps or regressive measures like the ATP certification changes. The reference was also accurate because we’re discussing mental health, privacy issues, and how they relate to pilots. This is a point where aviation and healthcare policy intersect.

  9. April 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

    You’re most likely right about the First Officer. Moreover, you are probably correct that he was NOT thinking of those he was taking with him. However, as we know in accident investigation, the sleuths must avoid “Investigation Bias,” wherein they come to a conclusion early on, and then every piece of evidence they find, they slant toward their beliefs.

    This is exactly what’s going on in the media right now. The fact that a pilot was under mental care or stress is suddenly the “smoking gun” everyone’s looking for. He went to a shrink? HE MUST BE GUILTY! Again, maybe he is, but my point is, having drawn a premature conclusion, we now look at this possibly innocent fact through the colored lens of our own bias.

    Meanwhile, I can still envision other possibilities going on. I don’t want to slide into the realm of speculation, but I suggest that there could be other plausible factors, such as the insidious onset of hypoxia (for example, the FO, assigned a lower altitude, unwittingly dials in 100.)

    As for the door release latch, it could have malfunctioned–or, again, under the influence of hypoxia, the FO mistakenly selects “Lock” (as we are trained to do while testing the system) instead of “Unlock.”

    Again, I’m NOT speculating nor saying any of these things happened. I’m just throwing out possible alternative scenarios that must all be considered before coming to a final conclusion on Probable Cause.

    Meanwhile, the family and loved ones of First Officer Andreas Lubitz continue to suffer a double dose of tragedy.
    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

  10. Todd D
    April 1, 2015 at 10:02 am

    We already have part of the fix, we always have two people in the cockpit when a crewmember leaves. That was the most shocking thing to me about this crime, he was allowed to be left alone.

  11. April 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Well spoken Ron. I hope the “Do Something” reaction can be studied with thoughtful insight, but that will be a pleasant surprise if cooler heads rule. Cheers.

  12. April 1, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Sad but so true … thanx Ron, well written!!!

  13. Joshua Martin
    April 2, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Very nice piece. The analogy to Obama Care is good. The costs of additional regulation will most certainly be passed on to us pilots and the Part 121 & Part 135 operators. The concept of every American having access to affordable healthcare is a good one. The path by which it is achieved is akin to making sausage. Very expensive sausage. The idea of every flight deck having a certifiably sane airman at the stick is also a great concept; however, is it really practical – or even possible – to regulate our way there? I sure hope the powers that be don’t attempt to do that!

  14. April 24, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Excellent analysis. I should state that I am a clinical and forensic psychologist as well as a pilot (commercial check ride as soon as I figure out the darn lazy eights).

    I am very disappointed in Meloy’s comments (as reported… There is always the out of incompetent reporting). First, Meloy as an expert in threat (of harm) assessment should know full well that we are not nearly as good at predicting violence to warrant that kind of assessment of all pilots. Second is the problem of base rates… It is nearly impossible to predict something that almost never happens. How many times has a pilot committed this kind of terrible crime in the last 30 years? Once? Twice? Even if I give you three times my best guess is always that it won’t happen. Finally, most individuals who want to kill themselves are not interested in taking out others… Just themselves. To call this first officer a psychopath may also be incorrect: he clearly wanted to make some type of statement to someone, or to have his name go down in infamy, or perhaps others. But psychopathy is no good if you’re dead. There are no benefits to reap. That does not mean that he wasn’t very callous in disregarding the lives he took with him – you sort of have to be indifferent to collateral damage.

    I really think the changes that need to happen are not with annual or semi-annual psychological screening – as good as that would be for my business. It really is removing barriers to pilots getting help when they need it and avenues for fellow pilots, crew members and even family and friends to speak up when things look bad. These are the people who can and should be recruited, and where we could offer some useful information.

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