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How well do we know the pilots who fly our planes?

March 26, 2015 at 6:45 PM EDT
Revelations of the cause of the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash have spurred serious concerns over safety and flight protocols, including ensuring pilots are properly trained and adding more monitoring in the cockpit. NewsHour aviation specialist Miles O’Brien joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the questions the airline industry may consider in the aftermath of the crash.
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GWEN IFILL: Today’s revelations have spurred serious concerns over safety and flight protocols, ranging from cockpit access and security to pilot training.

NewsHour aviation specialist Miles O’Brien joined me a short time ago to talk about all of us this via Skype.

Miles, thanks for joining us.

It seems the question that everyone is asking tonight is, how could this happen?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. It’s probably more in the realm of psychiatry and psychology than aviation in some respects.

But you have to look at the big picture here, Gwen, and the system that is facing tremendous demand and a lot of cost pressure. A lot of pilots are required to fill these seats and fly these aircraft. There’s a pilot shortage most everywhere you look in the world right now. Meanwhile, the pay for pilots is very low. So there’s a lot of pressure on the airlines to get people in these seats quickly.

And you have to ask the question if the whole vetting process, which we have relied on for generations in aviation, if that has somehow been short-circuited and we just don’t know the people flying airplanes as well as we used to.

GWEN IFILL: Describe the rules for cockpit access normally.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, since 9/11, everything changed, of course. We reinforced the cockpit door. And it’s not anything you can easily barge through. That’s the design.

The way it works is, when you go out, the person behind the locked cockpit door really has all the authority. You have to acknowledge somebody trying to come in and unlock the door. There is a component of this, though, that does afford access to the cockpit if there was an incapacitated crew.

If both crew members or one crew member were passed out and unable to respond, through a series of steps, you could gain access to the cockpit, but as long as the person on the other side of the door in the flight deck doesn’t want somebody in, you can keep them out.

GWEN IFILL: You started talking about this being almost a psychological exercise. What does the age and experience level of this pilot have to do with this investigation? We know he’s 28 years old. We know he had a lower-than-normal flying record. But does that mean anything as they begin to get to the bottom of this?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, there’s no black box for the human being, and I’m not equipped to psychologically analyze what might or might not have been going on inside this person’s mind, but I do know this, that the industry has remained safe over the years through a long, slow apprenticeship.

And that has been sped up in recent years. And concurrent with that, there’s been tremendous pressure on the airlines to make a buck. It’s a very difficult business. And there’s a lot of pressure to keep the salaries of pilots low. So you have to wonder, you know, is the process not selecting the best people for the job? And are we, in fact, not training them quite up to standards we prefer because it’s, frankly, cheaper?

GWEN IFILL: And it’s a self-policing question about whether a pilot who has responsibility for so many lives is in the mental state to fly.

MILES O’BRIEN: Exactly. I mean, basically, when you get hired at an airline, they do a psychological test. And that’s the last you get of a psychological test. The first-class medical done by medical examiners every six months doesn’t include a psychological test. They might say, hey, how you doing, that kind of thing, but nothing much more beyond that.

So, the system took care of itself. Back in the days, we had three-person crews. We had largely military crews. There was a sieve, a vetting process which really distilled who ended up in the cockpit. And there were fewer cockpit seats to fill, after all, which took care of this situation. So, now that this is a different environment, the airlines and the regulators perhaps need to look at a psychological component and vetting these people in a different way.

GWEN IFILL: So, now that we have seen this crash site, which is horrific, and so many little pieces, how does the investigation proceed going forward?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we have the big pieces.

If you had to pick one black box to find, the cockpit voice recorder in this case is the one. So I think, you know, some of the key information that we need is in there. It would be nice to have the flight data recorder just to corroborate what we have heard about control inputs by the remaining flight crew member, but this goes back to an ongoing issue in the industry.

We have the capability, the technology. There’s no reason why when a plane is nonresponsive for as long as 10 minutes that we can’t somehow get a view inside that cockpit, cameras in the cockpit, and streaming data from the aircraft so we know what’s going on. There’s no reason not to do this, except for money.

And, once again, that brings us back to our theme.

GWEN IFILL: Miles O’Brien joining us by Skype, thank you so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Gwen.

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