- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2015

Had German carrier Lufthansa followed U.S. protocols on pilots in the cockpit, the deadly crash that claimed 150 lives this week might have been avoided.

Just two days after the disaster, airlines around the world were rushing to embrace the U.S. rules requiring two people at the cockpit as an international team of investigators, aviation experts and grieving relatives tried to understand what drove the Germanwings co-pilot to lock out the pilot and deliberately crash the perfectly functioning airplane.

French authorities said Thursday that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz could be heard breathing on the cockpit voice recorder as pilot Patrick Sonderheimer pounded desperately on the cockpit door and passengers began screaming as the Airbus A320 plunged Tuesday into the rocky French mountainside.

“I don’t think the passengers realized what was happening until the last moments, because on the recording we can only hear cries in the final seconds,” said French public prosecutor Brice Robin, who heads the criminal investigation, at a press conference in Marseille.

But the incident has already sparked a major debate — and shift in practice — over airplane security.

U.S. airlines have long required another crew member, such as a flight attendant, to enter the cockpit when one of two pilot exits. The crew member must lock the door and remain inside until the pilot returns, according to the Federal Aviation Authority.

Nearly a dozen foreign carriers in Canada, Germany, Great Britain and Norway confirmed Thursday that they would adopt the two-person cockpit protocol. They include the two largest German carriers: Lufthansa, which owns the low-cost carrier Germanwings, as well as Air Berlin.

German Aviation Association spokeswoman Christine Kolmar said the plan, slated to be presented Friday to German authorities, would be implemented “as soon as possible.” Other airlines moving to the two-person protocol include Virgin, Air Canada, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air Transat, EasyJet, Monarch Airlines, Air Berlin and Thomas Cook, according to BBC News.

Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced that all Canadian carriers must adhere to the two-person rule effective immediately.

“Currently, there is not the requirement to have two members in the cabin,” Ms. Raitt told reporters, according to CBC News. “After this order, there will be a requirement to have two members in the cabin.”

“It could be a flight attendant. It could be a customer service person,” she said. “But they have to be members of the cabin crew.”

Pilot suicide

The case has also focused intense interest in what is known about pilot suicides, especially cases where the pilot at the controls was prepared to take his passengers to their deaths as well.

A 2012 Federal Aviation Administration report found that there were eight U.S. pilot-assisted suicides from 2003-13, but all involved small single-engine planes, not commercial jets.

“Aircraft-assisted suicides are tragic, intentional events that are hard to predict and difficult to prevent,” said the FAA report. “Factors involved in aircraft-assisted suicides may be depression, social relationships and financial difficulties, just to name a few problems.”

There have been a handful of cases on foreign carriers involving pilots who deliberately tried to crash their airplanes. Last year, a Mozambique Airlines jet crashed in Namibia, killing all 33 people aboard, in what may have been a deliberate act by the pilot.

Having someone else in the cockpit didn’t dissuade Captain Seiji Katagiri. The Japan Airlines pilot tried to crash his airliner in 1982 on the final approach to Tokyo, even with the first officer and flight engineer in the cockpit. In the ensuing struggle, the plane landed in shallow water short of the runway, killing 24 of the 147 people onboard. Captain Katagiri survived.

All 144 passengers and six crew members on the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf were killed when the airplane plunged into the French Alps mountainside near Nice.

The flight included three Americans: Robert Oliver, who lived in Barcelona; Yvonne Selke of Nokesville, Virginia, an employee for 23 years at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in Washington; and her daughter, Emily Selke, a recent graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said Thursday that the crash was “beyond our worst nightmare.”

“We are forced to come to the conclusion that the flight was deliberately crashed,” Mr. Spohr said. “The co-pilot, according to the audio recordings, took advantage of the momentary absence of the commander from the cockpit and then prevented him from coming back into the cockpit.”

Like many carriers, Lufthansa installed armor-plated doors after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in order to render the cockpits more secure. Airline personnel can enter the cockpit by punching in the access code, but that code can also be overridden by anyone in the cockpit, he said.

Mr. Spohr said company executives “have no indication as to what could have led the co-pilot to carry out this terrible deed,” but did say that Mr. Lubitz, 27, took a break in 2009 during his pilot training. He began flying for Germanwings in September 2013.

“I cannot tell you anything about the reasons of this interruption, but anybody who interrupts the training has to do a lot of tests, so the competence and fitness would be checked again,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Spohr said that no security system “can prevent such a singular event, I believe.”

This story was based in part on wire-service reports.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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