The lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly eighty of the 150 victims of the suicide-induced crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24, 2015, directs attention to the training of the pilots who fly for the airline (now called Eurowings) and its big brother, Lufthansa. Full disclosure before I continue.
- From 2001 until 2008, I was the primary investigator for Kreindler & Kreindler, the American aviation law firm that has sued Lufthansa’s pilot training center, called Aviation Training Center of Arizona or ATCA.
- In October 2010, I spent a week living and flying with the cadets who would, as Lubitz did, go on to become pilots with the airline. I wrote several stories about my time at ATCA, one for The New York Times, which you can see here, and several for my blog, which you can read here, here and here
My time at the flight school just outside of Phoenix ended just days before Andreas Lubitz arrived. Even then, according to the lawsuit and other documents that have been made public, officials at the school knew the young man had wrestled with serious mental illness.
Six years ago, while I was learning about Lufthansa’s efforts to select only the most promising applicants and an intensive program of training and oversight on arrival to the school at Goodyear Airport in Arizona, decisions had already been made that seem to have circumvented these protections in the case of Andres Lubitz.
By the time the young students I met actually got in an airplane they’d already received months of ground school in Germany and were effectively Lufthansa employees. Nearly all of Lufthansa pilots came into the airline in the same way. This includes Matthias Kippenberg, the school’s CEO then and now, and the man named in the Kreindler & Kreindler lawsuit.
Most of the details have been reported in some form or another in news accounts since Lubitz deliberately flew an Airbus A320 into the French Alps on what was until that time a routine flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.
Lubitz was accepted as a pilot cadet in 2008 but left during his initial training in Germany after experiencing a severe depressive episode. He was treated for ten months in 2009 and was accepted back in the program when his doctor determined he had successfully completed treatment.
The next step for Lubitz was flight school in the United States which required him to obtain a student pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration. After initially indicating he had no history of mental health treatment, Lubitz later changed his answer.
But having received assurances from Europe that the young man was fully recovered and an acceptable candidate to aviation authorities in Europe, the FAA issued its certificate. It was accompanied by a warning specific to Lubitz’s case; operating an aircraft was prohibited if he should develop symptoms or experience “adverse changes” in his mental health.
In laying out its argument that Lufthansa was “was negligent, careless and reckless and breached its duty of care” to passengers, the lawyers at Kreindler & Kreindler say Lubitz’s depression should have disqualified him from being accepted into the program, and that even after he was accepted, he was not monitored adequately during his training.
Lubitz was a “problematic flight training candidate and one who required heightened, continuous and vigilant scrutiny of his mental health and suitability to become a commercial airline pilot,” the law suit claims. Unsaid, but surely an important part of the lawyers’ investigation is whether Lubitz was given special treatment and if so, why.
Most of the time, law suits following air disasters progress in meeting rooms rather than courtrooms. This means it is possible that the public will never learn exactly how Lubitz was allowed to slip through Lufthansa’s selection and monitoring filters.
But long before the families of passengers receive compensation for their loss as a result of these closed-door meetings, it’s a good bet that the flaws at Lufthansa will be addressed and other airlines will take a serious look at their own processes and ask, “Could this happen here?”
Passengers hope – and the system demands – that such re-examinations are happening already.