Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Media, the Prosecutor and the Pilot: The Quickest Air Crash Investigation of the Century!


The crash of a Germanwings, owned by Lufthansa in the French Alps on March 24 has caught people’s attention across the globe. Its suicidal, 27 year-old copilot (first officer) deliberately slammed the plane against a mountain killing all 149 people on board. Every day brings new tidbits which add disbelief over grief. In an op-ed, a French philosopher questioned why such a trivial news item, a fait divers in French has attracted so much attention in the media and in society. If flying itself has become routine and increasingly safe, the occasional plane crash makes for sensational news. As we know so well, the media survive financially by scaring the living daylights out of its audience.


                                         What it should be

If plane crashes were mere fait divers, they wouldn’t lead to political, financial, business, commercial, labor relations and even religious arguments as they do. Consequently, the relatives of the victims are three-times wronged. In addition to the loss of loved ones, they seldom know the cause of the crash and too often, do not get fair compensation

To an indulgent bystander, events around the crash in the Alps, specifically the successive media leaks, seem to have blurred the ethical divide between yellow journalism[1], e.g. German tabloid Bild, French magazine Paris-Match and blue-chip newspapers like The New York Times and Les Echos (a French economic newspaper) etc. The truth may be that these serial leaks are intentional and that the media is ganging on the government’s air accident agencies to compel them to change the way they work for the sake of improved accountability, transparency and efficiency. This blogger strongly believes that the role of the media is to exposes the sector’s conflicts of interest which frequently corrupt investigation and lead to muddled conclusions.

Crash mysteries are primarily solved by listening to the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder and interpreting the flight data recorder, information kept in the two “black boxes” of the plane. The first box was recovered two days after the crash. The French government’s investigators were compelled to make the transcript public because the New York Times had leaked key parts of the recording.

The second black box (preserving the flight data) was later recovered and is providing information backing those of the voice recorder. After the crash of a commercial plane, the financial and commercial stakes are very high. The investigators are under tremendous pressure from governments, victims’ families, manufacturers, airlines and pilots unions. In Europe, conflicts of interest are likely because many governments are shareholders of both the plane manufacturer and the national carriers.

The time-consuming investigation of the crash of the Air France Airbus (Rio de Janeiro to Paris) in 2009 has exposed a consummate stakeholders’ meddling. It has resulted in a balancing act where each party was allocated a more or less equal portion of the blame. When a pilot’s suicide is suspected, the investigators may be confronted with religious taboos and governments’ interference. The accidents of the Indonesian and Egyptian airliners, respectively in 1997 and 1999, resulted from pilot suicide. In both instances, the governments contested the independent investigators’ conclusions.

The German prosecutor in charge of the investigation has been prying open the copilot’s life by disclosing “live” his mental health problems. This openness raises a patient privacy debate and criticism came from an unexpected quarter. Psychiatrists complained that pilots with mild depression will refrain from reporting problems and seeking treatment for fear of losing their job. Most pilots love to fly and many believe that doctors will ground them at the slightest sign of stress and mental disorder. In light of the conclusion of the crash investigation, this subject will continue to pit pilots against doctors and airlines against current privacy legislation.

Viscerally protective of their turf and of the exalted position of their members in society, pilots unions, notably in Europe, are not passively watching the media circus. Although not involved in the case, a French pilots union, all the same, has filed a lawsuit over the way the investigation is being carried out. It believes that the air accident investigators did not abide by French ethical standards and thus enabled the pesky media leaks. The pilots union claimed that investigators and media are jumping to conclusions without having all the facts at their disposal. In light of the findings, the union’s action smacks of corporatism and insensitivity.

Jets are becoming computers on wings, more intelligent, highly automated with enhanced system design, and consequently fatal accidents are steadily decreasing. In the second decade of the 21st century, secure flying is not the result of “a Darwinian improvement in pilot skills”[2] but that of aeronautic engineering improvement. The less pilots interfere with the automation, the better. Nowadays, pilot error is usually a misreading of the computer signals and subsequent incorrect action. Recent crashes have intriguingly exposed the misunderstanding between the intelligent plane and the humans seating in its cockpit. The airline industry is aware and concerned that the high level of cockpit automation is increasingly challenging the skills of its pilots and is a potential source of stress.

Pilot error may account for 50% of accidents[3]. Used to being blamed, commercial pilots suffer from an acute scapegoat syndrome. Subsequently, pilot unions are routinely fighting pro-active battles against plane manufacturers, airlines and governments. The French pilots union is notably uncompromising hence its ill-timed and tactless lawsuit.

Aeronautic engineers are working towards building drone-type commercial plane which in the 2030 horizon will not require pilots in the cockpit. With the prospect of becoming redundant and the likelihood of having had a megalomaniac, narcissist mass murderer in their midst, no surprise that the pilots unions are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Thanks to media pressure, the investigation of the crash of the German plane has been the quickest and most transparent ever. Meanwhile, the fate of flight MH 370 continues to feed speculation and the craziest conspiracy theories in an industry prone to the wildest tales.



[1] It refers to the scandal-mongering and sensationalist press. The word was coined in the 1890s when newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst battled for the best scoops to drive up newspaper circulation in New York City. Paul Collins’ book The Murder of the Century (2012) explores the publishers’ war around a bizarre murder.

[2] David Learmount, FlightGlobal, August 21, 2013.

[3] Percentage found in the media. Errors committed by poorly trained pilots have caused the recent deadly crashes in Asia.