[This blog was updated on March 30 to take account of developments since it was first posted on March 27]
Did the unauthorized leaking of information from the Germanwings A320 cockpit voice recorder (CVR) precipitate a French prosecutor’s decision to publicly accuse copilot Andreas Lubitz of deliberately crashing the aircraft into the French Alps on March 24, killing himself and 149 others on board? Pilot unions clearly think it did and they are understandably concerned that a New York Times report based on a comments by an unidentified French military official might have undermined the accident investigation by France’s BEA agency.
On March 25, the BEA held a press conference in Paris to update reporters on the investigation. BEA director Remi Jouty confirmed that despite damage to the CVR casing the agency recovered an audio recording. However, he stressed that it was far too early to offer possible explanations for what was then considered an accident, implying that it could take several days before the agency could confirm any further details of the CVR recording. The press conference started almost an hour late, at around 12 noon local time. Barely 12 hours later, the New York Times reported the unidentified military official’s revelation that the captain of Germanwings Flight 9525 had been locked out of the cockpit. First thing on the morning of March 26, French prosecutor Brice Robin signaled the start of criminal proceedings. Later the same morning, Robin told reporters at a press conference in Marseille that Lubitz deliberately caused the crash by changing the altitude setting in the A320’s flight management system.
So in less than 24 hours, the official position on the incident accelerated from something along the lines of “be patient, it’s going to take some time for us to figure this out” to “case closed.” The BEA has yet to hold a follow-up briefing on the investigation and it fell to the European Cockpit Association to remind the world that investigators have yet to find the aircraft’s flight data recorder, analysis of which could prove vital to confirming the facts.
On March 30, German newspaper Bild published what it said was a transcript of the CVR recording, highlighting efforts by Flight 9525's captain [named as Patrick Sondenheimer] to break down the cockpit door. A BEA spokeswoman said the agency is “dismayed” by the apparent leaking of the CVR transcript, which it has not confirmed as being authentic, and insisted that the leak could not have come from a BEA official. On March 29, BEA lead investigator Jean Pierre Michel told reporters that his team are still not ruling out other explanations for the crash.
Under France's accident investigation system, the processes being pursued by the BEA and the prosecutor will continue in parallel. BEA's core goal, in accordance with ICAO standards, is to “issue safety recommendations in order to prevent future accidents and incidents.” It is expected to conduct its work without any control by either French government or judicial authorities.
The prosecutor's judicial investigation is aimed at determining fault that may result in liability being established, resulting in possible criminal convictions and payments being due to victims. Effectively, BEA would have no control over a possible leak of evidence by someone from the prosecutor's team. Under French procedural rules, cockpit voice and flight data recorders are registered under seal by judicial authorities before being handed to the BEA for analysis.
Tragically, it seems all too likely that the French prosecutor’s assessment of the situation will prove correct. But professional pilots are understandably concerned that a mix of responsible and irresponsible reporting by the media, and cluttered communications on the part of officials, derailed long-established investigation processes and protocols
Understandably, the European air transport industry has been stunned by the deeply shocking realization that an airline could be so vulnerable to the destructive action of one of its own colleagues. Regardless of the final outcome of the investigation and eventual criminal proceedings, the incident has already revealed profound confusion on two key points: the rules governing access to the cockpit and requirements for psychological evaluation of professional pilots.
Less than 24 hours after insisting that its cockpit access rule mirrored that of its U.S. counterpart (which already required two crewmembers in the cockpit at any time), the European Aviation Safety Agency recommended that airlines under its jurisdiction adopt the U.S. standard (effectively acknowledging that they had differed). Several airlines had already made the change the previous day, adding to the impression of EASA’s less-than-total command of the situation.
Further confusion ensued when the media quizzed the airline industry about the extent to which it monitors the mental health of pilots. Lufthansa acknowledged that it would have psychologically assessed Lubitz before selecting him for its flight training academy in Bremen, but the extent to which he subsequently underwent evaluation remains in question. More generally, the circumstances have left a strong impression that insofar as biannual Class 1 medical checks include psychological assessment, their effectiveness largely depends on how probing individual doctors choose to be and how honestly pilots answer questions about their mental health in the almost-certain knowledge that it could end their careers.
Airline customers have a right to know that the tragedy of the destruction of Germanwings Flight 9525 will be subject to thorough and impartial investigation, and that, as necessary, safety procedures will improve. Sadly, the largely reactive, and at times chaotic, way the industry and its regulators have handled the process so far will not inspire public confidence.