How we could have avoided the German Wings disaster

Dear Airline executives

I am a frequent traveller and heavy user of airline services. As a consultant for the energy industry, my work is global and I spend a lot of time musing about the safety on the planes I use.

The recent disaster involving the apparent homicide perpetrated by a young co-pilot to 149 airline passengers and crew on a German Wings flight sent shivers down my spine and I am sure many more. This thing is much worse than an attack by terrorists or some sensor or mechanical failure. This is something that has no quick and cheap remedy – at least not for those boarding the flight. After all that I have seen, human failure accounts for way more than 90% of all airline accidents.

After the incident I heard a pilot say that technical problems were the source of most accidents in the 60ies and 70ies but that today technology is virtually foolproof. It’s the human factor that makes airplanes come down in other places than airports. This also means that we all put ourselves to the mercy of fallible bio computers in cockpits when we board an airplane.

At the same time we are in the middle of a revolution involving Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s). Those drones are doing things no man could do before and they have an incredible safety record. They are even able to land on the tiny, rolling deck of an aircraft carrier safely. The military trusts the safety of its soldiers on the battlefield to those airborne devices. Can we do the same for commercial aircraft?

I know that putting the safety of airline passengers into the hands of a computer sounds and looks horrible but looking at the disaster in the French Alps or indeed at September 11, I cannot help but ask myself if this is not the better option. Let’s not forget, there are only two persons in the cockpit and they hold the lives of hundreds in their hands. It’s a funny thing that we invested so much in airline and airplane technology in order to make flying safer but this basic component of the industry is still as sophisticated as in the early 20th century.


This wont help finding madman …

Forget about screening processes and evaluations for the pilots. Those screening tools happen to be more of a tool to exonerate airline executives from any responsibility rather than making flying any safer for passengers and crews. The latest disaster involving an airplane proved this point more than dramatically.

One can screen as much as he want, we will not be able to know what’s really going on inside the heads of people. Another proof is the success of groups like IS which convert scores of otherwise normal people to become some of the most cruel and heinous killers on the planet. Currently available technology is not going to help in this process. Our mental ways are still nothing more than guesswork.

We need real and solid knowledge. Knowledge, that allows us to reliably prevent things like in the French Alps for all times.

Hence, I propose putting the systems to enable remote override control of the aircraft into our commercial flyers. Technology wise this is actually quite easy. It will cost some money but then again, compare this to the cost in lives and money any disaster like the last one produces. Do your math – dear airline executives – and you will find that the next incident might cost you your airline? Malaysia Airlines needed help by the state to survive. And they are not the first airline to be shaken to the core and even to go out of business because of an accident.

We passengers rely in the assumption that the people in cockpit will if not able at least be willing to control pretty much anything that happens during a flight. But we want to be sure that the pilot and the co-pilot fight whatever comes our way off with all their grit as their lives are on the line along with ours.

The crashed German Wings flight proves this assumption wrong in the most terrifying way. From now on we must also put the fear of a madman in the cockpit into the equation together with our general fear of going airborne. I will tell you right away – I only fly if I have to. It might be irrational but I have two little kids and want to cut down on things that might potentially get me killed.

I think that I speak for many, many billions of people on this planet that all cherish and value their worldly existence.

Let’s come back to the technology base case. If we can remote control military drones in the most difficult of circumstances, then I have a hard time understanding why this should not be possible with commercial aircraft.

Today’s modern airliners have an autopilot that does a lot the pilot usually does and it has increased airplane safety by a huge margin. Today’s airline disasters are mostly due to humans either messing up or willfully crashing the metal-bird.

Standing by to take over ...

Standing by to take over …

So, if this is the biggest single threat to our life’s while we are airborne, then let’s do the appropriate thing. Let’s put technology into the plane that allows us to take the reins out of the pilots hands if we need to.

Pilots will still have to be in the plane and they will be masters of the systems to a point. But shouldn’t the technology that our military uses in order to protect us from ill will of our external foes also be available to protect us from madman with a pilot’s license?

Oh, there is the cost factor. Yes, it will cost money and yes, airlines are on shaky economic ground these days but ignoring a crucial safety system is not going to make people travel more which is what airlines need in order to cut a margin. No passenger – no cash flow. No cash flow – no dividends. No dividends – no bonus for the airline manager. See it this way.

As a passenger I will look what airlines will go ahead and introduce those features to their aircraft first and it will be a defining factor when I pick my next ticket. Price is important but safety is more important. I can go without a meal, without drinks, without oversized bags and without onboard entertainment. I can content with little leg space and may make sacrifices on comfort and easy connections but I will not compromise on my safety.

I do not want to end up crushed and roasted on a mountainside like those 149 poor people. Let them be the last martyrs of the airline industry and put remote control in place.

The first airlines and aircraft builders to do so will have an edge in their fight over dwindling passenger numbers.

Your passengers of the world

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