2015 was among the safest years in history for airline passengers. Globally, the industry experienced 1 crash for every 5 million flights. This is the lowest it has been in 70 years. While the decreased fatality rate is something to celebrate, an ugly threat is making its presence known.
While the overall number of accidents declined, the number of deliberate actions intended to bring down an aircraft increased. These include acts of terror and acts of suicide. The increase in these types of accidents highlights a pressing need within the airline industry to enhance security. It also highlights the need to better screen personnel who may pose a threat to passengers and aircrew.
Acts of Terror
Terrorism onboard aircraft has a long history dating back to the 1970’s. Over the years, airlines have enhanced security measures to minimize the threat of terrorism. They have not always been successful. In the past 100 years, there have been 53 airline bombings that have resulted in passenger and crew deaths. There have also been 6 hijackings, one of which resulted in total loss of life for crew and passengers.
When Aircrew are the Threat
Two of these hijackings were conducted by disgruntled and mentally disturbed co-pilots. On February 17, 2014, Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 was hijacked by co-pilot Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn. He is currently being tried and faces twenty years in prison. In the most tragic example, Germanwings flight 9525 was hijacked by Andreas Lubitz on March 24, 2015. Distraught over a break-up and facing many personal problems, Lubitz crashed the aircraft into the alps. All 150 people aboard the aircraft lost their lives.
Individuals who commit deliberate acts of terror aboard an aircraft can face criminal charges. The airlines themselves can face civil liability for failing to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. Clauses 17 and 18 of the Warsaw Convention assign liability to the airlines for incidents that harm passengers, crew, or their possessions at any time they are onboard the aircraft.
The Warsaw Convention has been ratified by 152 states. This convention covers all airlines operating from these countries. Should a passenger be injured or killed, their liability is limited to $125,000 per passenger.
Germanwings Crash Tests Public Patience
The Germanwings crash highlighted a growing threat within the airline industry. As pilots become overworked and stresses mount, many are developing psychological problems. This makes these individuals dangerous to both passengers and crew. For this reason, many are calling for increased mental health evaluations of pilots and aircrew to ensure that those in positions of responsibility are not allowed to endanger the lives and safety of others.
Following the accident, Lufthansa paid $50,000 to victim’s families. They further made a settlement offer of $25,000 for the pain and suffering they experienced. The offer of settlement was rejected by the families, and they have chosen to file a civil suit against Lufthansa.
Because the passengers on the Germanwings flight came from a number of countries, lawsuits may be filed in the passenger’s country of origin. In this case, the United States has been chosen as the country where passengers wish to file the lawsuit.
With the evidence currently available, Lufthansa’s liability is pretty clear. As such, it is expected that when the case is filed, that the court will side with the plaintiff’s and award them a settlement in excess of the terms allowed under the Warsaw Convention.
The Future of Safe Air Travel
Immediately following the Germanwings crash, airlines around the world began taking steps to revitalize their own security. EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air Canada, and Iceland Air all announced changes to protocol intended to prevent similar incidents on their airlines.
US carriers did not take additional security steps in response to the Germanwings crash. To this day, US carriers do not require mandatory psychological screening of pilots. This is even after Clayton Osbon went berserk on a JetBlue flight in March of 2012. In that instance, the co-pilot was able to lock the pilot out of the cockpit and safely land the aircraft.
While the FAA instructs doctors to look for signs of mental health problems during a pilot’s routine physical exams, no part of these exams is specifically directed and detecting mental health issues.
FAA Considering Changes
Under pressure from airplane accident attorneys, lawmakers, and the general public, the FAA is considering changing their tune. As aircraft grow larger and carry ever larger numbers of passengers, they’re starting to realize that the risk to human life is simply too great. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of airline officials, flight surgeons, and other aircrew to report unsafe crew members to their superiors. It’s a stop gap measure that’s full of holes, but for now it’s the only thing keeping pilots and aircrew with mental health problems off of American aircraft.