Geopolitics

One Of Our Own Was A Suicide Killer - Lufthansa Pilots Struggle To Cope With Lubitz's Act

That one of their own aircrafts crashed, killing 150 people, is disaster enough. But that a colleague deliberately murdered all those people is inconceivable to pilots and staff of Lufthansa and its low-cost carrier Germanwings.

At Munich airport
At Munich airport
Felicitas Kock and Simon Hurtz

MUNICH — German pilots and cabin crews have been in a state of shock and mourning since Tuesday, having lost six members of their Lufthansa family. After the Germanwings Airbus crashed in the French Alps last week, killing 150 people, multiple employees have reported sick because they were simply too upset to work.

An accident of this scale would be tragic and difficult enough to process, but the realization that a colleague of theirs intentionally crashed the plane into the mountains in an act of suicide and mass murder is almost incomprehensible.

"Anything else I could handle better," says a Lufthansa pilot. A technical failure, human error, an incorrect response to a burst window. But a deliberately guided crash? That's beyond their imagination.

"I sit in the same seat as him. We have the same training," the pilot says. "The idea that he sat there for eight minutes, as the mountains raced towards him, while behind him more than a hundred people, including babies, students and colleagues, sat and even started screaming. That's crazy."

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz could have changed his mind up until the very end, his colleagues say. Even seconds before the impact, he could have reset the autopilot, dragged the control stick towards his body and given full throttle. Pilots practice that scenario when they learn on simulators. He could have responded to the warnings of air traffic controllers, or the system's alarm signals.

But the long descent, locking the door. Why did he do it? "Within 10 seconds, I can turn the instruments in the cockpit so that the plane is guaranteed to crash," says another Germanwings pilot. "No matter what the captain does to try to save it. But of course, that wouldn't be a gentle descent. It would be a freefall."

In that scenario, even a second person in the cockpit couldn't help. The new "rule of two" Lufthansa instituted after the crash, requiring two crew members in the flight deck at all times, will serve as a constant reminder of Andreas Lubitz — whenever a pilot leaves the cockpit, goes to the toilet or gets a cup of coffee.

Inconceivable danger

No one at Lufthansa expected that their own pilot could be dangerous. In training, budding aviators learn what to do in emergency situations. What to do if technology fails, if the other pilot makes a mistake or has a heart attack. That a pilot would take deliberate steps to crash the plane is never discussed, never even imagined.

Lubitz taking a selfie. Photo: Socialchannel.it

Pilots are selected according to the highest standards and must undergo rigorous psychological tests before they even begin training. "You can't look into a person any more thoroughly," a Germanwings pilot says. Those who make it past the first round are likely to be well-adjusted enough to make it past later screenings, so as not to attract attention. The demand for more psychological tests is therefore misguided, the pilot says.

"I don't think that you can create more security through tougher psychological controls," says a flight attendant. "You can't monitor anyone around-the-clock, and besides, it would be strange if every pilot needed a psychological exam every week. I think we need to work to ensure that colleagues look out for each other."

Red flags

Pilots are trained to recognize when their colleagues are behaving suspiciously and to speak to their supervisor if they have any doubts. It's not seen as snitching, but as a necessary precaution. "After all, you yourself have a vital interest in ensuring that the guy next to you will not suddenly turn at the wheel," says the Germanwings pilot.

In practice, this is not always easy, says another. Co-pilots and captains are reassigned to each other for every flight so that they don't start to develop a routine together. They know each other only in the rarest of cases. If you're meeting a colleague for the first time, how do you know if he's behaving weirdly? "There are so many different characters," this pilot says. "And just because someone isn't like me, it doesn't necessarily mean anything."

It will be different in the future. The news of Germanwings flight 4U9525 hasn't destroyed trust among Germanwings pilots, but it has definitely shaken it. Some are able to keep flying, but others have cancelled their trips for the next few days. The shock from the crash runs deep. Those pilots who talk to the press want to remain anonymous, and most others don't want to say anything. "If only because I lack the words," writes one pilot in response to Sueddeutsche"s request for comment.

Crunched by Stephanie Russell-Kraft

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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