Yes, you can trust your pilot


Few industries have professionals as dedicated as ours.



The airlinie I fly for requires captains to conduct a briefing with the entire crew, flightdeck and cabin, before each rotation. This is done after the separate dispatch briefing for the pilots and the purser briefing for the cabin crew. The purpose is to introduce eachother and to tell the flight attendants about the route, the expected weather and flight time. It also to give the captain a chance to set the tone for the upcoming flights. Priorities are set, trust is established, a team is formed.



This is not a lengthy affair, usually just 10-15 minutes, but nevertheless very important. Airline rostering these days is very individualized, in large airlines most crewmembers on a flight have not flown with eachother before. Due to a rigorous selection process and highly standardized procedures and training, it is still possible to form great teams in very little time.


It is the task of the captain to establish trusted and respected leadership beyond his formal authority in this briefing. While a routine task for many, it has been more difficult in the last couple of weeks after the tragic crash of a Germanwings A320 in the French Alps.


I also spent quite some time thinking about what to say at my next briefing. How should I explain to a young stewardess, who might be with the company since just a couple of months, that the murderous Germanwings pilots was an absolute exception, and that pilots work to protect her and all on board, not to destroy them.


I searched for days and weeks to find a reasonably explanation for what made Mr. Lubitz dangerously different then any other pilot I know. Only in the last few days have I found an answer: the potential effects of psychotropic drugs used to treat depression. It now seems that the FAA and in Europe EASA lifted a ban on pilots using some of these drugs around 2010. Psychotropic drugs carry a mandatory warning that use could result in suicide, homicide, or violent behavior. Until five years ago, the FAA had therefore grounded any pilot who used this class of drugs. Why the rule was changed is not clear to me at this point.


Aviation is a technological world. In our aviation world, things function reliably according to their design. When there is a problem, we find a technical solution, and have been very successful with that approach for decades. It is not surprising then, that some call for the removal or overriding of pilots in the airplane, since the human element appears to be the problem. After all, some say, military UAVs operate safely and efficiently since many years. So, why not get rid of the pilot?


Well, first of all, UAVs do not operate safely. At least not as safely as commercial airliners. The accident rate is closer to 1 per 10,000 sorties, whereas commercial aviation under part 25 is based on an accident rate of 1 per 1 Million departures, with many airlines striving to achieve 1 per 10 Million or even 100 Million departures. In other words, the current UAV accident rate is totally unacceptable for commercial aviation. Even an UAV needs human operators, although on the ground, that may face all the same issues as the airborne pilot, plus some more as these operators do not put their own life on the line.


Secondly, there are people on board, and on an airplane there is no emergency brake. The fact that only one person on a vessel can have the final authority over this vessel and its inhabitants is engrained deeply in our value system. Only the people on board a vessel should control their destiny, and they usually let the most qualified of them handle it, the captain.


I can not see any circumstance under which people carrying aircraft would not be under the final authority of an onboard pilot – in – command. Someone has to be responsible for the aircraft, and shifitng this responsibility to an operator or programmer on the ground will not solve any safety or security issues, on the contrary, new risks may very well be possible. The only automatically operated vehicle people use routinely are the little trains that connect terminals that can be stopped at the touch of a button by anyone on board and which allow you to just walk away.



So we will have a captain on each aircraft. The captain has the responsibilty for the safe arrival of his passengers, crew and freight at their destination. He will try to shield them as much as he can from all risks that they may encounter on their journey. This includes per definition security risks.


All people on board an aircraft, passengers and crew, as well as those on the ground such as government authorities, family members and friends, operators etc. generally place a high amount of trust in their pilots. Without trust in pilots, aviation would look completely different or would not be possible at all.


And pilots earn this trust very hard. From first solo to command of a commercial aircraft, professional pilots proof every day that they are reliable, disciplined and trustworthy. Professional pilots are generally law-abiding and patriotic, many have a military background. We are essential partners in aviation safety and security, not threats. Most of us acknowledge that perfecting aviation requires constant vigilance and an open mind towards new technologies. But we also know that a good measure of sceptical conservatism has served our industry and its safety record well.


The international licensing system for pilots established by ICAO and national authorities such as the FAA structures the way an aspiring pilot establishes knowledge, ability and trust with the government. The government represents the public, which in turn can expect a commercially licensed pilot to be knowing, able and trustworthy.


In addition, employers usually do extensive screening, interviews, and backgournd checks. So when a professional pilot gets hired, he or she has been through so many hoops that imposters or in any other way questionable people will not make it that far. Discipline and desire to achieve, selection, training, examining and recurrent training shape a professional pilot workforce that can be proud of their reliability and performance.


Employers are well advised to treat the pilots they finally hired well. Despite all the technology passengers still put their lives into the hands and minds of these pilots. Pilots should not worry about paying their bills. The seniority system and a good compensation are meant to bring peace of mind to each pilot, so that they can focus on the safe and secure conduct of their flight.


Now, I am not blue-eyed enough to not realize that in our deregulated airline world and in a very competitive and cost conscious commercial and executive aviation environment not all is perfect. It is not only the constant operational and cost pressure that wears hard on pilots and the aviation system. It is also the inherent conflict between a public that requires trustworthy and able pilots (but may be not willing to pay for them adequately) and individuals that see themselves as great future commercial pilot material but actually may lack the required skills, abilties and personality.


Add a training industry that in many cases operates for profit, and some individuals may sneak through the system, possibly by switching training providers whenever they hit a roadblock. It is imperative for flight surgeons, training providers and examiners to keep the public’s interest in mind when deciding who may become a commercial pilot. Individual desires to become a commercial pilot may have to be balanced with society’s need for a safe aviation system.


Some bad apples always get through, however. Add post 9/11 commercial airliner regulation that requires locked cockpit doors and no way to get in from the outside and you have a recipe for desaster. This was obvious to experts even before the Germanwings massmurder in March, 2015. Here are just two examples:


In September 2011, while cruising at 41000 ft over the Pacific, the copilot of an All Nippon Airway B737-700 tried to open the cockpit door for the captain but mistakenly activated the rudder trim switch instead. The aircraft was put into an almost inverted nose dive by this action and lost 23000 ft in 30 seconds. The captain could not get in to help until the copilot found the right switch. 117 passengers plus crew just narrowly escaped an inflight break-up and crash.


While this incident had to do with inability, bad intent of one pilot has also been shown before: In February 2014, the First Officer of an Ethiopian B767 enroute from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Rome hijacked the aircraft simply by not letting the captain back into the cockpit after a bathroom break. He continued all the way to Geneva and requested political asylum. Nobody was hurt in this case. The First Officer got almost 20 years in an Ethiopian jail instead of asylum in Switzerland.


In a sister industry, on the water, similar problems have been foreseen. A friend of mine, Mark, is captain on a very luxurious cruise ship. He is just as interested in aircraft as I am in ships, so both of us complement eachother nicely. During a recent vacation, I was lucky to be onboard his ship.


He invited me to the bridge to see all the fancy gadgets they have nowadays to navigate the seven seas. At the end of a corridor leading to the senior officers accommodations was the door to the ships command center, the bridge.


Just like entry to commercial aircraft flightdecks, access to a ship’s bridge is restricted in the post 9/11 world. A pilot or officer inside has to verify the identy of the person requesting entry, and then allow access. Even I as the captain have requested access to my own flightdeck many times in the last 10 plus years, waiting patiently for the First officer to open the door for me. And I never doubted the procedure, never mistrusted my fellow pilots.


My friend Mark however, as a cruise ship captain, never requested access to his own bridge. He already had it. He had a special code, and the door opened. Simple, effective, fitting for the commanding officer.


When I told Mark that I did not have this kind of code and had to rely on my First Officer to get back in, he said, half jokingly, that in aviation, pilots are probably screened more carefully then officers in the shipping industry. And that is probably true, the maritime industry has in its history hired a much larger variety of characters then commercial airlines. Due to pay and work conditions, airlines for many years had the ability to filter out the very best and hire them. The shipping companies could not afford this. So there is historically more mistrust and distance between officers and the captain on a ship. After all, mutiny is a nautical term.


In my opinion, the killing of 149 unsuspecting innocent people in a Germanwings airplane by one criminal pilot forces us to review and strengthen the way we uphold and ensure personal, ethical and medical standards in aviation professionals. And it forces us to place more trust in these professionals, something that has been pushed aside a little since 9/11. Because the only person that could have saved the lives of all people onboard Germanwings was locked out of his flightdeck and could not get back in: the captain.


While there should be no doubt that US and international aviation needs to be protected from the terrorist threat, the question is wether a security system that places little trust in the professionals that actually run aviation every day and does not differentiate and focus in a meaningful way will ultimately succeed.


We must give the ultimate authority on board, the captain, an overriding possibility to gain access to the flightdeck under any circumstances. I am sure that there is a technology that can achieve this. The public will demand a better way safeguard flightdecks from unauthorized interference.


J. Peter Berendsen