Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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When a Tragedy Becomes a Nightmare
March 26, 2015 -- So this happened: I got off an overnight flight to Europe on Tuesday morning, checked into the airport hotel at about 8 a.m. local time, flipped on the tube, turned on an English-language all-news channel and hopped into bed for a quick nap before my first meeting. I woke up just as the network was breaking in with the first reports about the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash.

In retrospect, the first report was the highlight of this whole awful affair. It was the moment when we all thought it might "just" have been a terrible accident. But it's so much worse now that it seems a 28-year-old pilot purposefully steered his Airbus A320 and 149 other human beings into a mountain. It's always gut-wrenching to think about a plane crash. It's devastating to be required to contemplate that it was done purposely.

As I write this on Thursday evening Europe time, about 60 hours after the tragedy, no one has any idea what could have motivated Andreas Lubitz to commit such a horrific act. What I know is what follows. The good news, such as it is, is rather small. But it is important that we don't let the bad news overwhelm us.

The thinnest of silver linings

This isn't much, but it is something. Perhaps 95 percent of airline accidents happen during take-off or landings. Airliners cruising at altitude are remarkably safe. But usually unflappable aviation experts were deeply frightened this week by the thought that the Germanwings incident could have been a catastrophe that upset one of the few bits of settled and accepted wisdom we have. If absolutely nothing else — and it is absolutely cold comfort — at least we are still somewhat secure in the knowledge that aircraft at altitude are good to go. There is no new mechanical horror that must be discovered, dissected and corrected.

It couldn't happen here ... probably

Among the many security protocols adopted in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was the requirement that the cockpit could never be manned by fewer than two airline staffers. If a pilot or a co-pilot steps out of the cockpit on a U.S. flag airline, a flight attendant is required to sit in on the flight deck. The purpose? Exactly to avoid the Germanwings scenario, which seems to indicate that the co-pilot intentionally locked out the pilot. This is not to say that the rule is universally followed on U.S. airlines. I've been on more than one flight when an aviator leaves the cockpit and the flight attendant stands in front of the door on the passenger side. My guess is that we won't see that in the near future as U.S. flight crews go back to by-the-book flying. And it goes without saying that most of the world's carriers will soon adopt U.S. procedures.

Not gonna happen ...

I heard several commentators on the European-based English-language news stations opine that the Germanwings incident proves that flights should always be manned by three people in the cockpit. If I know nothing else about this tragedy, I know we're not going to a three-person flight deck. The days when flights had a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and even a communications officer — we might as well call it The Odyssey of Flight 33 syndrome— are long gone. It's neither operationally necessary nor financially practical. In fact, airlines have openly speculated that one-person cockpits were an approaching reality.

Pilot-created incidents are very rare

If Andreas Lubitz did, indeed, cause the death of his passengers and crew by steering the Germanwings Airbus A320 into the French mountains, he wouldn't be the first pilot to go the murder-suicide route. The most famous — if disputed — incident was Egyptair 990. It disappeared over the Atlantic in the fall of 1999. The most recent pilot murder-suicide was a Mozambique Airlines flight just before Christmas in 2013. You can take some comfort that pilot murder-suicides are truly very rare.

Low fare versus high pressure

There has been some speculation that the safety margin at Germanwings is or was somehow different because it is identified as a low-fare/low-cost carrier. Based on a per-thousand-flight calculation over the last few decades, the number of fatal incidents involving low-fare carriers is actually slightly lower than the number of incidents involving traditional, full-service airlines. But one factor that will surely get more attention in the months ahead is the ongoing mental health of the aviators who carry so much responsibility on their shoulders. The issue has been raised in the United States given that many pilots for major airlines make a fraction of their former earnings and aviators for some regional carriers literally earn less than truck drivers. And if you haven't heard it yet, you'll surely hear soon that Lufthansa and its pilots have been at loggerheads over pilot retirement benefits and the parent airline's plans to morph Germanwings into Eurowings, a much-larger discount carrier.

And in the end ...

It's okay to be spooked by the Germanwings affair, the still-unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and several other recent high-profile airline incidents. This is scary stuff. We business travelers don't like to admit it's scary stuff, either, because we somehow think this marks us as weak or soft.

But you are safer on a plane than in your own car or on a train. And, yes, safer than in your own home. The odds say you have a better chance of dying in a bathroom-related accident than in a plane crash.

Will that make you feel any better? No. Will it make you feel less spooked by the thought of a 28-year-old ramming his aircraft into a mountain? No. Will it ensure that you won't get a knot in your stomach next time you go to the airport? No.

But facts do matter. And if I've got to bet my life on an aircraft or my bathtub, I'm betting on the plane. If for no other reason than I need a plane on Monday night to get back across the Atlantic and home to my death trap of a bathroom.


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.