The Germanwings tragedy has prompted questions of what safeguards exist to manage potentially unstable pilots.

Confirmation by officials that the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 92525 intentionally downed the aircraft has focussed scrutiny on identifying and managing risks which arise within the cockpit. 

Officials state that a review of the cockpit voice recorder of the Germanwings flight indicates the co-pilot intentionally prevented the captain from returning onto the flight deck and deliberately descended the aircraft into the French Alps, ultimately killing all 150 on-board.

On the back of this news, many commercial carriers, including Qantas and Virgin Australia, have quickly moved to update their operating procedures – preventing any pilot being left alone in a cockpit.

However, questions need to be asked as to whether these procedural changes, as they currently stand, are practical and effective, and whether the aviation industry ought be doing more to address the crux of the issue: pilot mental health.

Instances of pilot breakdown

Although instances of pilots suffering mental health emergencies during flight are rather rare, there have been occurrences prior to the Germanwings tragedy.

In 2012, a JetBlue pilot left the cockpit and commenced running through the cabin shouting irrationally about religion and terrorism.  He was ultimately restrained and the co-pilot made an emergency landing.  The pilot has recently commenceding proceedings against JetBlue for damages in excess of $16 million, alleging the airline failed to identify the ‘warning signs’ and recognise his mental illness. 

In 1999, officials concluded that the co-pilot of an EygptAir plane had intentionally downed the aircraft into the ocean shortly after take-off from JFK airport. All 217 onboard perished. 

While such occurrences are exceptional, these events can be catastrophic and quickly gather worldwide attention. How the aviation industry manages these risks is therefore a crucial question and one the general public is eager to have answered. As noted by Warren Truss, Australian Deputy Prime Minister, ‘While the Germanwings tragedy occurred a long way from Australia, it is important that the travelling public are reassured that all reasonable measures are being taken to ensure the safety and security of the aviation sector’. 

The ‘Rule of Two’

Following the 9/11 hijackings, procedures and standards were put in place to increase security around the flight deck, including that certain aircraft install an enhanced, hardened flight deck door. Australian regulations also required the door to remain locked for the duration of the flight, except when necessary to allow a person to enter or leave the cockpit. During flight, access to the flight deck had to be authorised by the pilot in command. The regulations though did not require airlines to replace a pilot who temporarily leaves the cockpit.

In the aftermath of the Germanwings tragedy, regulators and carriers around the globe are now amending their policies to require that two members of the operating crew or authorised persons remain in the cockpit at all times in-flight. In Australia, airlines must immediately update their Standard Operating Procedure to adopt this requirement for all regular passenger transport services where the aircraft has a seating capacity of 50 and above.

At this stage, or at least until the effectiveness of these arrangements are reviewed again in 12 months time, the pilot in command of the aircraft retains operational discretion on the application of the ‘Rule of Two’ requirements which will be dependent on flight crew circumstances. However, one might question the practicality of this requirement. 

It could be envisaged that implementing the ‘Rule of Two’ in aircraft with smaller cockpits, such as the Boeing 737, would create practical difficulties in physically maneuvering the exiting pilot out and the incoming authorised person in – potentially resulting in the flight deck door remaining open for longer than ideal.

Further, the pilot in command’s discretion to appoint an ‘authorised’ person to occupy the jump seat raises its own safety concerns. While airlines such as Virgin Australia have instructed cabin crew (potential authorised personnel) on how to operate the flight deck door, these personnel may be lacking in other skills or vetting which means they create a new risk within the cockpit. Cabin crew generally do not undergo the same degree of medical examinations as do pilots. Likewise, and unless their role is simply to provide an avenue to allow the absent pilot back into onto the flight deck, it may be questionable if the temporary jump seat occupant has the knowledge to ascertain if the remaining pilot is sabotaging the flight.

Mental health of pilots

While the aviation industry has been quick to respond to the Germanwings tragedy, many are still wondering if enough is currently being done to monitor and manage the mental health of our airline pilots.

On the back of Lufthansa admitting it was aware of the Germanwings co-pilot’s ‘previous episode of severe depression’ in 2009, officials are now turning their attention to how (if at all) this was managed post-2009 and whether Lufthansa implemented and followed an appropriate and safe procedure in allowing the co-pilot into the cockpit. 

While Australian pilots undergo thorough psychiatric testing during pre-employment recruitment, ongoing assessment of their mental health could be better targeted. Airline pilots under the age of 40 are subject to annual medical reviews, while those over 40 are examined every six months. CASA does require these periodic medical assessments to include review of psychiatric problems and substance abuse. However, the ongoing screening or testing of pilot’s mental health is sometimes as simple a completing a form or answering frank and superficial questions from the designated aviation medical examiner such as ‘Are you suicidal?’ Although there are understandable cautions in rigorously and regularly testing a pilot’s mental health, it seems the current system has clear failings.

In addition to employing the ‘Rule of Two’, Mr Truss says aviation agencies will continue to work with the aviation industry and airline staff to review the requirements for medical testing, including for mental health. He has not though indicated what such review will entail, nor have any practical changes to the current system been proposed. 

Moving forward from Germanwings

Ultimately, and while the implementation of the ‘Rule of Two’ may well reduce the risks of a rogue pilot sabotaging a flight (or, for instance, a pilot left alone in a cockpit who for whatever reason disables cockpit re-entry and then becomes unconscious or incapacitated), it may require some close monitoring and probably some refining to ensure any unintended and unsafe consequences are adequately managed. 

It is expected that much will turn on what constitutes an ‘authorised’ person, as well as the pilot in command’s discretion to apply the ‘Rule of Two’. While it is certainly a positive step forward, the aviation industry ought be cautious not to overshadow the primary issues at play: pilot mental health. Perhaps the focus should now turn to whether current procedures adequately monitor and manage the mental health of our pilots.