Beyond the “Madman”

A Marxist pilot on the Germanwings plane crash.

Journalists wait on an air base in Seyne, French Alps a day after the Germanwings plane crash. Boris Horvat / AFP / Getty Images

For weeks now, Andreas Lubitz’s tragic decision to kill himself and dozens of others aboard the Germanwings Airbus 320 he was piloting has dominated international media coverage. Although the official accident investigation will take months to complete, French authorities quickly made it into a criminal investigation and released limited information about what transpired.

We know that after the captain left the flight deck, Lubitz locked him out of the cockpit and redirected the aircraft downward. The captain can be heard asking to be let in, then attempting to bang down the door. Lubitz is silent. Investigators claim Lubitz was still alive until the moment of the crash because he can be heard breathing.

As soon as it became clear that this was not just a tragic accident, but a conscious and successful attempt to destroy the aircraft and its passengers, the plot thickened. Why would a young man like Lubitz do such a thing?

It is not the first time a pilot murder-suicide has occurred. Less than two years ago, something nearly identical happened on Mozambique Airlines Flight 470. The aircraft crashed in Bwabwata National Park in Namibia, with all twenty-seven passengers and six crew members killed. According to the investigation report, the captain had a “clear intention” to crash the jet, and changed its autopilot settings after his copilot had been locked out of the cockpit.

Before that, in 1997, there was the case of SilkAir Flight 185, in which the captain nose-dived his aircraft into the Musi River in southern Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1999, all 217 passengers on EgyptAir Flight 990 died after a similar crash. The causes of these events have not been determined conclusively, but the primary theory is that they were murder-suicides, committed by one of the pilots.

More than nearly any other industry, aviation is built on trust. The pilots trust the mechanics to do their jobs correctly, they trust the dispatchers who plan the flight, they trust the ATC controller handling the flight, they trust the security screeners to keep weapons off their aircraft, they trust the cabin crew to do their jobs properly, and they trust the person in the other seat to safely operate the aircraft.

There is also the trust between passengers and pilots. Aviation is one of the safest modes of transportation — statistically, the drive to the airport is the riskiest part of the journey — but it still understandably produces a lot of anxiety among fliers. When this tacit confidence in one another breaks down, it is an arresting thing.

The Mental Health Taboo

Few hard facts are known about Lubitz’s mental health. The New York Times reports that he “had a medical condition that he hid from his employer.” Investigators found a doctor’s note at his home that would have excused him from work the day of the crash. German media is reporting that his training was interrupted in 2009 so he could receive treatment for depression. His employers at Lufthansa have confirmed he took time off, but the reason has not been revealed.

This is not the place to speculate about Lubitz’s state of mind. Like workers in all industries, pilots deal with personal tragedy and pressures at work and in their personal lives. When you are not fit to fly, physically or mentally, the regulations and expectations stipulate that you stay home. It would be fair to say, however, that machismo is quite prevalent in aviation, and most pilots would rather not fly because of a bad cold than admit they are dealing with mental health problems.

While the culture of the aviation industry has improved over the last few decades, mental health issues remain an enormous taboo. One major problem is that most pilots who clear the substantial hurdles to sit in that seat (having the skills, having the finances, relocating, finding a job) will do anything to keep their position. Apart from grieving and going through a divorce, it is not an insignificant risk to admit to your colleagues and employer in the airline industry that you are dealing with issues that are not of a physical nature. The fear of losing your job is very real, even paralyzing.

Commercial pilots are required to have a Class 1 medical certificate, which has to be renewed every year (and more even regularly as you age). This is on top of regular proficiency checks, where an examiner assesses whether you are up to your job. Lose or fail any of those, and it can quickly be the end of your career and your livelihood.

Naturally, airlines select candidates who can deal with the stresses and pressures of flying. Lubitz himself was the product of Lufthansa Flight Training, a prestigious institution that uses the DLR flight aptitude and skills test. This exam is one of the hardest selection procedures in the industry and has a very low pass rate. However, like all current selection procedures, the test does not check for mental illness. Psychological profiles are assessed, but these simply determine if someone fits the job profile and the company culture.

There is no adequate support system in place for pilots suffering from mental health issues, even if brought on by fatigue or a variety of other causes common to the industry. The perception among pilots is that if we ask for help we will be out the door, with no hope of returning to work. This pressure is not conducive to optimal mental health for those sitting at the controls.

Shattered Dreams

The popular perception is that being a pilot is a wonderful, well-paying job. The reality for most young certified pilots is that unless you’ve saved up over the years while working another job or have wealthy parents sponsoring you, your debt load will be €100,000 or more.

After certification comes the stress of actually obtaining work in an over-saturated job market. A sizable number of qualified pilots will never make it to the flight deck — recruitment has been stagnant since the 2008 recession.

If you’re lucky enough to find a job, it will likely be at a low-cost airline like Ryanair, which is sweeping the European market. In that case you’d better find another €30,000 to pay for your type rating, because the days when an employer would actually pay for that part of the training are long gone.

Then be prepared to set up your own “company” through which you offer your “services” on a self-employed basis (no sick pay, no pension, no guaranteed hours or income) — all in order to be sent to any of the airline’s European bases, to be bullied by management, and to be worked the most that is legally possible. Don’t like it? Thousands of others are ready to take your place.

If you happen to live in the US, you will be operating small and mid-sized aircrafts until you have at least 1,500 flying hours, before moving onto regional airlines that, in some cases, barely pay a minimum wage. At the Los Angeles International Airport, there are even parking lots with mobile homes that house pilots and mechanics.

In the last ten years or so the phenomenon of “pay to fly” has rubbed even more salt in the wounds. This is the absurd arrangement in which desperate people with too much money and too little sense actually pay an airline to sit at the controls in the flight deck.

Companies like Eagle Jet take advantage of people who cannot find a flying job and who have deals with certain airlines to offer “line training” (something that is part of the job) and blocks of flying hours (typically one hundred to five hundred, with prices up to $60,000). Once you have completed your hours you may receive a contract and start earning a wage a year or more down the line, but even that isn’t guaranteed.

Once you clear the initial hurdles, piloting can be a very rewarding job — even at low-cost airlines — and many people end up doing reasonably well for themselves, particularly if they manage to move on to legacy carriers like British Airways or Aer Lingus. But a growing number of pilots fall by the wayside and are forced to seek employment outside aviation.

Low-cost airlines have initiated a race to the bottom, and legacy carriers have been forced to follow suit. In order to understand how it came to this, we have to go back a few decades.

In much of Western Europe, most flying jobs used to be with state-owned, unionized flag carriers. Pilots were worldwide ambassadors for their countries and enjoyed well-paid, coveted positions.

Then came privatization and deregulation. Governments sold their investments to public shareholders, and profit became the only guide. Anyone could start up an airline flying within the European Union (EU). Lo and behold, it was discovered that aviation was a vocational industry; people would sell their grandmothers for a step up on the ladder, and pay to do it.

The expansion of the EU into poorer countries aided this race to the bottom, with traffic going both ways. Holiday models changed from longer get-aways to short breaks and spontaneous trips. The major airlines suffered and had to respond. They saw that crews would accept poorer terms and conditions in the up-and-coming companies, and so they imposed cuts on their own staff.

This process is still going on within Lufthansa, Lubitz’s employer. Lufthansa is a traditional national carrier, but in order to stay competitive in a cutthroat market, it branched out and developed a low-cost subsidiary, Germanwings.

Workers for Lufthansa and Germanwings are covered under different collective-bargaining agreements  and are subject to a tiered system of benefits that separates existing pilots and new hires. Over the past year, members of Vereinigung Cockpit, the pilots union, have gone out on strike in opposition to this disparity, as well as Lufthansa’s plans to expand through a small, non-union carrier.

Rejecting the Social Vacuum

It is unclear how much Lubitz was aware of or affected by any of the foregoing. What is clear is that he lived in this social context — characterized by weak or non-existent unions, poor working conditions, and rock-bottom morale — and became socially alienated to a pathological level.

The point is not to justify Lubitz’s actions, but to try to understand why a human being might behave in such a way, so as to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Within aviation over the last few decades, this has been the goal of aircraft accident investigations: not to heap blame on any particular individual, but to try to uncover a chain of events in order to draw lessons. Similarly, we shouldn’t just throw up our arms and declare Lubitz a “madman” or a “rotten apple” who lived in a social vacuum.

We should instead situate Lubitz’s actions in the context of both the degradation of work experienced by pilots and the degeneration of the aviation industry. Hyper-individualized analyses of cause and effect won’t get us very far.