When friends first asked how the Germanwings plane could have descended out of cruise flight and crashed into a mountain on a clear day, I responded with “EgyptAir 990“. Sadly it seems from the information that has been released this is indeed what happened.
Friends are now inundating me with questions about airliners, cockpit security, and how to protect the plane and passengers against a mentally ill pilot. Here are some examples:
Why don’t airliners transmit flight data recorder (“black box”) and cockpit voice recorder data to ground stations that so we get quicker answers to what went wrong? Partly this is due to a lack of a high-bandwidth worldwide network through which to send the data. The Iridium system is old and slow. The usual suspects of Silicon Valley world-savers are supposed to come through with a 700-satellite constellation by 2019 (OneWeb). Perhaps at that point it would be practical to send a wide stream of data out but airlines would no doubt resist the fees for FAA-certified hardware ($1 million per airplane?) and data charges.
Why does TSA screen pilots so thoroughly before they get on planes? I don’t know. As a regional jet crew of three we used to have to slog our way through security every morning in our airline uniforms with our forgery-proof IDs. TSA would hassle us thoroughly if we had a few extra coins in a forgotten pocket. Yet as soon as I sat down in my seat I could easily reach for a truly nasty weapon: the crash axe. It was required equipment on all of our planes, weighed about 5 lbs., and looked like something a medieval warrior on an HBO show would wield. We had no training regarding how to use this device and I am not sure what it is for (breaking the windows to escape the cockpit? we had an escape hatch on top). However, I am confident that it would make a better weapon than two quarters and a dime, a set of car keys, or a mobile phone (items assiduously sought by TSA).
Could this crash have been prevented if a flight attendant had been in the cockpit? “No,” is the short answer. The EgyptAir 990 captain managed to get back into the cockpit fairly quickly and still could not save the plane. It turns out that things can go bad very quickly in a jet. Pushing one button will cut off the fuel to an engine (i.e., two presses on two buttons and a standard twin-engine plane will no longer have power). Stomping on the rudder can break off the tail of an Airbus (American Airlines 587). Pressing another button will dump the cabin (instant depressurization). Pushing forward on the stick or yoke can put the airplane into a 30-degree nose-down attitude within a few seconds. The airplane can be rolled at 30 degrees per second until it is upside down. Automated systems can be disabled by pulling circuit breakers. Imagine that Pilot 1 gets up to go to the bathroom and the flight attendant has just come into the cockpit and locked the door. Pilot 2 initiates the preceding actions before the flight attendant can get seated and belted in. What chance does Pilot 1 or the flight attendant have to save the airplane at this point?
[Separately, remember that it is also fairly easy to crash a jet at low altitude through simple incompetence. The mentally healthy pilot probably wouldn’t have time to react to things done by a mentally unhealthy pilot if done shortly after take-off (plane is going 180 mph and is full of fuel at that point). You thought Captain Sully was a hero? Remember that the Pilot 2 can create that situation for Pilot 1 by pressing two buttons. The first officer couldn’t fix the captain’s fairly simple mistake in time on Colgan 3407.]
Were you subject to pre-employment mental health screening? “Not really,” is the best answer. Delta mainline pilots are, supposedly, with the MMPI and a psychologist interview. But we just got some tests for “cognitive skills” (ability to multi-task and avoid distractions and/or concentrating too much on one thing) and a decision-making test that was vaguely psychological. Perhaps the company was afraid to see just how crazy pilots had to be to take a 22-day/month, 16-hour/day job for $19,000 per year.
Could a crazy or depressed pilot get released to fly with passengers? Probably not. Training takes three months and a lot of people have an opportunity to interact with you in what can be intimate surroundings. There are a couple of checkrides with FAA-designated examiners (previous posting on the subject of training). There is a stage called “initial operating experience” with “check airmen” (sexist nomenclature but some are women) of 50-120 hours in a real airplane with real passengers and people who are truly unsuited to the job often wash out at this point by failing to be signed off. (Obviously there is some risk of a pilot intentionally crashing the plane during this phase, though the check airmen are presumably on high alert.)
Could a crazy or depressed pilot continue to fly with passengers? Yes. Due to the fact that it is illegal for a foreign airline to come in and put all of the U.S. carriers out of business (Ryanair’s costs are only about 45 percent of Southwest’s (source)), U.S. airlines are fat targets for labor unions (JetBlue pilots unionized recently). It is a lot easier to fire a pilot than a public schoolteacher, but not simply because the pilot doesn’t smile and fails to respond to “How are you doing?” with the standard crew lounge response of “Livin’ the dream!”
Would it help to have annual psychological testing? It would certainly help the psychology industry! One issue is that psychological tests were designed for populations of people with serious mental illnesses. They may be meaningless in a population of more or less sane people. Academic studies have shown that antidepressant drugs may not be more effective than placebos and that therapy may not be any more effective than drugs (example). If psychologists can’t treat depression consistently how do we know that they can recognize it? I flew with some captains who had quirky personalities. For example, while acting as “pilot monitoring” on one flight it was my job to press all of the buttons while the “pilot flying” was hand-flying the aircraft (one hand on yoke, one on the thrust levers). The plane was on autopilot and we were assigned a new altitude by air traffic control (ATC). I started pressing some buttons that now properly belong to the captain, a company check airman. “Who’s fucking this sheep?” he asked. What would a psychologist have done with that? And what would a psychologist do with a population of notorious malingerers who share information on what kinds of questions are asked and what the right answers are? There are entire web sites devoted to the topic of how to game the airline interview process. Due to the industry’s unique characteristics (see “Unions and Airlines”), the consequence of being fired from a $250,000/year job (captain with seniority at Airline A) will likely be starting a $50,000/year job doing the same tasks 2X as many hours (first officer with no seniority at Airline B). So a unionized pilot would have far more incentive to try to beat a psychology evaluation than would an ordinary worker.
How does pilot mental health compare to the average? Pilots need to pass a medical exam every year. If they exhibit serious mental health issues the doctor probably wouldn’t issue a medical certificate. Learning to fly requires a certain amount of mental discipline. Commercial pilots are subject to random drug testing so it is impossible to be on drugs or alcohol much of each month. Thus my layperson’s perspective is that pilots tend to be reliable, patient, and sober/drug-free. There is one big exception, however: divorce, custody, and child support. Pilots are away from home 10-22 days/month. Suppose the stay-at-home spouse decides he or she is bored and needs to have a lover. If the stay-at-home spouse progresses to the plaintiff stage, most U.S. states will reward that spouse with the house, the children, and at least half of the pilot’s income going forward. The cash and the house go with the kids. The pilot is the slam-dunk loser for any custody lawsuit because he or she was away much of the month and therefore cannot meet the “historical primary caregiver” standard that is used when courts allocate children and the child support profits that accompany them. “Suing a pilot is almost as easy as suing someone deployed overseas in the military,” is how one litigator put it. What if it is the pilot who indulges in sexual activities on some of those nights away from home? Here’s an excerpt from our Massachusetts chapter:
“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport. She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot. Of course, instead of serving food and beverages, she did have to care for those children.” Using the USDA-estimated actual costs of children and the 2013 Massachusetts child support guidelines, compared to the college/work alternative a woman would have more spending power collecting child support from two men when each had an income of at least $95,000 per year (sufficient to generate $39,264 per year in tax-free income or $377 per week from each defendant).
Pilots get sued often enough that people talk about AIDS: Aviation-Induced Divorce Syndrome. And with our winner-take-all divorce system in the U.S., the loser will tend to be unhappy about it. Here’s an excerpt from our Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter:
Attorneys we interviewed reported that some of the male defendants that they’d sued had killed themselves. One lawyer noted “The guy never would have signed up to be a secondary parent but now that is his court-ordered role, along with paying all of the bills for a mother who was greedy enough to turn her child into cash. Most of the guys who are worth suing are middle-aged. You might be talking about a 50-year-old defendant with a 1-year-old child. He’ll be paying until he is 70, but the amount that he pays was set when he was at his peak earning capacity. As he gets older he’ll probably be earning less, but judges almost never adjust child support or alimony downward. So gradually he’s paying an increasing share of his income to his plaintiff. I’m actually surprised that more of these guys don’t kill themselves. They really have no reason to exist other than to write checks to someone with whom they were briefly acquainted many years previously.” What do the researchers say? “Divorce and suicide risk” (Kposowa 2003; Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57:12): “Divorced men were over eight times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women. … After taking into account other factors that have been reported to contribute to suicide … [divorced men] were nearly 9.7 times more likely to kill themselves than comparable divorced women.” For comparison, “Marital Status and the Risk of Suicide” (Smith, et al 1988; American Journal of Public Health 78:1) shows that married men 45-54 kill themselves at about 2.5 times the rate of married women of the same age.
If a pilot is depressed because he (typically) lost a divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit, can’t he simply ground himself for a while? The answer is “yes” from the airline’s point of view. From a practical point of view the answer is “not” unless he wants to go to prison and never work again. Remember that if was worth suing he probably was earning towards the higher end of the pilot pay scale. There aren’t going to be any non-flying jobs with comparable pay. And he is depressed so who would hire him? Thus he has a child support and/or alimony order in place based on his $150,000/year pilot salary. If he can’t earn close to $150,000/year he won’t be able to pay this order, in which case he will join the roughly 1 in 7 child support payors who are imprisoned at some point for nonpayment (for not paying the court-ordered amount, Massachusetts offers the pilot a felony conviction, which means he won’t have an ATP certificate anymore and therefore won’t be able to work again, plus up to 10 years in prison). Thus the pilot is given a powerful incentive by the divorce court, his plaintiff, and all of the lawyers involved to keep flying the American public, regardless of how depressed or suicidal he is feeling.
What about fancy technology fixes? Given that the airliners can be flown by hand and that most of the automation can be turned off by pulling circuit breakers accessible to the pilot, I don’t think that there is a way for current airliners to be made pilot-proof. Only the “big hammer” of a fully automated airliner would protect passengers from pilots intentionally crashing airplanes. Are we ready for complete automation? At the pace of progress that is permitted in our regulatory environment I would say that it will take at least 15 more years. One potentially serious problem is that an airplane flown automatically is by definition being flown on instruments. Yet our air travel system collapses if planes have to make instrument approaches. Things only work at busy airports when pilots can make visual approaches (previous posting) and follow fairly closely behind other planes.
As noted in “Unions and Airlines,” pilots would be in a lot better shape if they all had a reasonable work schedule. So the FAA should require that airlines give all pilots equal schedules, regardless of seniority. A borderline suicidal pilot who hasn’t slept for five nights is worse than a borderline suicidal pilot who is well rested.
Airlines should be able to automatically fire divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit defendants. We have set up a system where the pilot is virtually certain to lose the house, the children, and most of his or her income going forward. After absorbing that kind of loss there is a pretty good chance that the pilot’s mental health will be seriously compromised. Our legal system has decided we no longer want that person as a parent for the children (except for a few days per month). Why then would we want that person having the power of life or death over hundreds of none-the-wiser ticket-buying customers?
TSA should stop hassling pilots. If nothing else, the Germanwings crash proves that a pilot doesn’t need accessories to endanger passengers. Maybe have a simple screening procedure for pilots and flight attendants to prevent them from bringing actual guns into the airport, but otherwise let them be. What would your mood be like if you had to be TSA-screened every working day of your life?
There should be some truly plush crew lounges at every airport where a pilot might have to wait. If I fly a little Cirrus to B. Coleman in Gary, Indiana I can exercise, enjoy a movie in a theater, work in peace and quiet with high-speed Internet, etc. If I’m an airline pilot with a four-hour break in some airport without a crew lounge I am stuck in the public terminal. That’s a depressing way to live even for a person whose mental health was great to begin with.
We should allow Mexican and Central American airlines to operate freely within the U.S. The Mexican suicide rate is much lower than the U.S. average (source). I’ve never met a Latin American crew member who didn’t seem to love his or her job (contrast to the Lufthansa pilots who have been out on strike 13 times in the last year (article)). We’d all be in a better mood if we could fly COPA domestically.
One reason that the Germanwings and EgyptAir crashes are so horrifying to me is that ingrained in pilot culture is the idea that passenger safety and comfort are paramount. If we need to roast up in the cockpit so that they can be comfortable back in the cabin, the temperature knob is set accordingly. This was a sad week for aviation.