Pilot affinity ‘gives Air Malta safety boost’ - ALPA boss

The European Cockpit Association said it was “deeply disturbed” by the revelations that the Germanwings tragedy was a deliberate attempt to destroy the aircraft.

A sense of camaraderie and community among pilots gives Air Malta a safety advantage over larger airlines, Airline Pilots Association president Domenic Azzopardi has said in the wake of the tragic Germanwings massacre perpetrated by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz.

Lubitz was alone in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 jetliner on the flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, which he flew into the French mountains of Dignes-les-Bains, killing 149 on board. He ignored the demands from the captain to be let back in, deliberately guiding the plane into the mountains.

Prosecutors are investigating the theory that Lubitz had been suffering from depression, a condition he kept hidden from his employers.

“Pilots here all know each other, meaning that they’ll be more likely to know whether their co-pilots are feeling down,” Azzopardi told MaltaToday.

“Air Malta has a very good safety record and its pilots are already fully screened, but the familiarity among its pilots does make a difference. However, we will welcome any further initiatives to improve airline safety.” 

ALPA boss Dominic Azzopardi:
ALPA boss Dominic Azzopardi: "Air Malta pilots all know each other... they will be more likely to know whether their co-pilots are feeling down."

Indeed, pilot and ground trainer Aaron Micallef suggested that pilots’ psychological states should be evaluated as part of their annual medical examinations. “The European Aviation Safety Agency should come up with a recommendation that flights should never be manned by just one person, with immediate effect. This recommendation should then be followed by a law that should state that in the absence of one of the pilots on the flight deck, the cabin crew manager must be present in the flight deck until the absent pilot returns to the controls of the aircraft.”

Micallef comments echo the debate as to whether cockpits should ever be occupied by one pilot alone. Indeed, European airlines, including Air Malta have already updated their safety policies so that a cabin crew member must step into the cockpit if one of the pilots needs to leave temporarily. 

Apart from the familiarity argument, Azzopardi also pointed out that pilots who are feeling stressed or depressed can already take sick leave after being declared as ‘unfit to fly’ by an authorized doctor.

Doctor Paul Sciriha, an aviation medicine specialist who has examined Air Malta pilots for 30 years and is now the Civil Aviation Directorate’s chief medical officer, pointed out that pilots deemed unable to control a psychological condition or who are placed under specific medication, risk losing their pilot licences.

However, he insisted that this is unlikely to act as a deterrent for pilots to seek psychological help.  “Pilots are criminally liable for the fit-to-fly declarations that they have to sign before every flight. Besides, pilots’ colleagues can refer them to doctors if their performances are not up to standard.”

“The entire airline industry is a victim of this tragedy,” ALPA president Azzopardi said. “If people are scared of flying, then the airline industry will suffer as the cruise liner industry had suffered in the wake of the Costa Concordia tragedy. Airline management must do whatever it takes to ensure that they regain people’s trust in airlines.” 

However, a potential safety gap may as yet exist in cockpit locking systems. Following the 9/11 attacks, airline locking systems were updated to prevent terrorists entering the cockpit. Flight crewmembers are provided with emergency codes that they can use to enter a locked cockpit, but pilots within the cockpit can choose to block them from entry.

While this could prevent a terrorist from forcing airline crew to use their emergency codes to let them into the cockpit, it also appears to have prevented the Germanwings captain from entering his own cockpit and saving the plane from disaster. 

Captain Patrick Calleja, Air Malta’s head of aircraft operations, described the airline’s new ‘rule of two’ cockpit policy as a “quick fix”. He added that the European Aviation Safety Agency could recommend further security updates, including to the locking system, upon the conclusion of an inquiry into the Germanwings crash.

The European Cockpit Association said it was “deeply disturbed” by the revelations that the Germanwings tragedy was a deliberate attempt to destroy the aircraft.

“As trusted professionals, who invest a lifelong career in making air travel safe, this is a very difficult day for us. We understand that many facts point to one particular theory for the cause of this event. Yet, many questions still remain unanswered at this stage…

“We, pilots, are safety professionals. As such we are determined to work with manufacturers, operators and authorities to improve safety, as we have always done. We will continue on the path to work jointly with these colleagues in an open, trusted environment. Even if this turns out to be a single extraordinary event, we are committed to making improvements to ensure flying becomes even safer than it has always been.”

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