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Moment that mattered: Germanwings Flight 9525 crashes in the French Alps

I was in my bedroom listening to the morning news on the radio when I first heard about the crash. I said to my husband ‘You wouldn’t just fly into the mountains. That had to be either pilot incapacitation or a loss of control.’ I knew this wasn’t a ‘typical’ accident – accidents in-flight at cruise altitude are very uncommon – but I didn’t initially think it was pilot suicide.

What’s interesting about this accident is that if we invest a lot of energy, time and money in trying to solve the issue that caused it, we will be chasing an unlikely event rather than a more likely one. Since 1980 there have been just six airline accidents that were caused by intentional acts by pilots. Out of millions of flights that minuscule figure means purposeful crashes do not belong on a list of significant safety issues in aviation.

Aviation regulators and policy makers are in a difficult position because they must respond to what the public perceives as a threat. The public will perceive every crash as a big problem. Of course, it is a big problem for the families of the victims, and for the airline. But there is a distorted perception of a threat. I think what aviation regulators would like to do but are in some ways politically prevented from doing is take a look at the data. Where do we see the problems? What is consistently happening? How do we solve these problems? One of the real threats in aviation safety right now, for example, is the carriage of lithium-ion batteries in cargo compartments of airplanes. Now that’s a real problem. They’re being carried in airplanes across hours and hours of ocean where there are no emergency landing zones.

“We believe we must constantly mitigate against human fallibility. But automation also comes from man – our software is as flawed as humans”

When we see bad years in aviation, such as the last 12 months, some of it is down to statistical anomalies, but some of it is not. More people are flying and new airlines are entering the market. The percentage of people who travel by aeroplane is increasing dramatically in countries like India, China and Indonesia as well as Southeast Asia. That means huge increases in civil aviation and, ultimately, more accidents. There’s no mystery to this – it’s a growing pain in certain regions of the world.

Some people have argued that the possible development of unmanned civil flights will make aviation safer, but I disagree with that. The over-automation of planes happens in part because we believe we must constantly mitigate against human fallibility. But automation also comes from man – our software is as flawed as the humans who created it. The difficulty is that we don’t know where the patches should go until the holes start to show. We always hear about where the pilot may have screwed up but when a pilot saves the day, it is unacknowledged. What those lovely, fallible, error-prone, distractible people give us is the ability to respond to novel events in creative ways. If we remove that quality from the equation, we could suffer many unintended consequences.

We are constantly looking for a way to plug this hole and plug that hole. Without question, the thing you think will solve a problem will cause another one. Weaknesses exposed by the Germanwings crash will prompt changes. Those changes will have their unexpected consequences. But one result we can anticipate is that spending too much time on the remote threat of suicidal or homicidal pilots will take attention away from far more common problems in air safety.

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