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Trouble Overhead


The tragic incident in which a flight crashed in the French Alps with 150 people on board on March 23 highlights critical safety oversights in the airline industry. It is believed that the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane by locking the pilot out of the cockpit when he went to the washroom.

Canada’s Transport Minister Lisa Raitt acted quickly upon hearing the news, issuing an interim order on March 26 that requires two crew members to be on the flight deck at all times. The new regulation also allows a member of the cabin crew to take the place of a pilot during a bathroom break.

While Canadian airlines, such as Air Canada, Westjet and Air Transat, have publicly stated that they will be following the directive, surprisingly, Porter Airlines was the only airline to report that the rule had always been part of its policy, according to the Toronto Star. If it is indeed the case that the three airlines never had such a policy, I am shocked. When the lives of dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of people are at stake, you can never be too cautious.

As more details of the catastrophe emerge, the event has the potential to shine a light on the difficulties faced by many workers with mental health issues who struggle to maintain their jobs. Reports suggest that Lubitz had received doctor’s notes excusing him from work and that prior to becoming a pilot, he may have had suicidal tendencies and was seeing a psychotherapist for depression. Lubitz apparently had not disclosed this information to his employer before the crash.

Unfortunately, the incident has served only to further stigmatize mental illness, with some people calling for airlines to institute more rigorous psychological-testing policies for pilots. But such testing usually relies on self-reports, which employees could potentially manipulate.

More importantly, it is misguided to suggest that struggling through a bout of depression prior to being certified as a pilot makes that person unfit to fly. At least in part, because an isolated episode such as this may not be an accurate predictor of the future. Life circumstances always have the potential to lead to stress, anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. Even the chief aviation investigator of the Transportation Safety Board said in an interview with The Canadian Press that what happened in the Germanwings crash is very rare.

When it comes to testing an employee’s mental state, no one person can produce perfect results every time. People cannot be automated, and therefore, human error or flaws will always be present. While more testing, policies or automation may prevent the same accident from happening again, it cannot predict new problems that may arise.

A Vanity Fair piece published last October suggests that the devastating event in which an Air France flight crashed in 2009, killing 228 people, displays how increasing automation may actually be leading to poorer human performance. The writer ends on the thought: “There will still be accidents, but at some point we will have only the machines to blame.”

When accident prevention focuses solely on better policies or technologies, it fails to capture the entire picture. A Mental Health Commission of Canada study notes that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness. Since the health and safety of pilots and passengers are inextricably linked, perhaps through addressing the root cause by improving pilots’ health, public safety may also improve.