Tag Archives: Aviation

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Germanwings Mass Murder-Suicide Caused by Punitive Rules, Coldhearted Capitalism


Investigators are still putting together the pieces, but from what we know so far, it’s likely that 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz committed mass murder-suicide when he flew a Germanwings passenger jet carrying 149 passengers and fellow crewmen into the French Alps.

Authorities say they haven’t found a suicide note, but it’s a safe bet that Lubitz’s final act was prompted by depression (they found the meds), diminished vision, a deteriorating romantic relationship and his worry that the Lufthansa subsidiary would ground him if they found out about his problems, crashing a career he loved and blowing up his livelihood.

Though rare, pilot suicide isn’t unheard of. As long as the current system remains in place, it will happen again.

By “system,” I’m referring both to specific rules issued by the FAA and other countries’ aviation authorities to regulate pilots, and to that most coldhearted of socioeconomic systems, you’re-on-your-own capitalism.

“Before they are licensed, pilots must undergo a medical exam, conducted by a doctor trained and certified by the aviation agency,” explains The New York Times. Some airlines impose additional screening procedures, but they vary from company to company. Active pilots are required to have a medical screening once a year until they turn 40 and then twice a year after. Only when pilots are found to have mental health problems are they sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation or treatment.”

At first glance, an incident like the Germanwings disaster seems to call for increased physical and mental monitoring. But leaning harder on pilots would only fix half the problem.

The current system is punitive – thus it encourages lying.

“But the system, Dr. [Warren] Silberman [a former manager of aerospace medical certification for the FAA] and others said, leaves pilots on an honor system, albeit one reinforced by penalties to discourage them from concealing any health issues that could affect their fitness to fly, including mental illness. Pilots who falsify information or lie about their health face fines that can reach $250,000, according to the FAA.”

Imagine yourself in that position. Knowing that public safety is at risk, you might do the right thing and step forward after your psychiatrist tells you that you shouldn’t be working, as happened to Lubitz. Then again, you might not.

First of all, you might doubt the diagnosis. That’s the thing about mental illness – victims’ judgment can be impaired. For example, there is evidence that Ronald Reagan suffered from early signs of dementia while serving as president. If true, that’s scary – but was the Gipper aware he was fading?

Second, you might think you could handle it, that with the help of psychiatric treatment and antidepressant medications, you could push through what might turn out to be a temporary crisis. Why risk everything over a passing phase?

Third, and this is likely, you might keep your problems to yourself because to do otherwise would ruin your life – or at least feel like it. At bare minimum, it would end your career, forcing you to start from zero. For many people, that seems too horrible to bear. In our society, social status is determined by our careers.

“The stigma [of having a mental illness] is enormous,” Dr. William Hurt Sledge, professor of psychiatry at Yale who has consulted for the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association and major airlines, told the Times. “And of course, none of them wants that to be known, nor do they want to confess it or believe that they have it.”

And for those who decide to ignore the stigma, what comes next? Where’s the safety net, professional, social and economic, for people who run into trouble, whether of their own making or not?

At the root of Lubitz’s decision to kill himself – whether he gave much thought to the 149 people on the other side of the reinforced cockpit door cannot be known – is that he lived, as we all do in the Western world, in a disposable society. Lose what you do and you lose what you are. The bills keep coming long after the paychecks stop; soon you have nothing left.

I could throw a dart at any daily newspaper to illustrate this point; today it would probably land on the results of an AARP survey that found – unsurprisingly to anyone over age 50 – that a single layoff after that age has devastating, long-term consequences. People over 50 are overwhelmingly more likely to wind up classified among the long-term unemployed and typically wind up earning less if and when they find a new job, often starting again from scratch in a new industry because their experience was in a line of work that no longer has openings.

I imagine a system in which people like Andreas Lubitz don’t need to see a psychological or other setback as the end of their world.

What if he could have confided in his bosses without fear? What if Lufthansa policy was to stand by him through his treatment, guaranteeing him a respectable job at equivalent salary – for as long as it took for him to get better? And if he couldn’t recover, what if he knew that his country’s government would provide for him financially and otherwise? Finally, what if no one cared what he did for a living, and it was just as prestigious and remunerative to work as a file clerk as to fly a plane?

I’m not sure, but I bet 150 people would be alive today.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)


Bye, Bye, Body Scans: Let’s Get Rid of the TSA

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

Here’s a modest proposal: get rid of airport security.

I’m serious. Let’s get rid of the whole insane nightmare of TSA checkpoints. No more taking off your shoes and removing your belt, no more possibly carcinogenic and definitely humiliating body scans, no more long lines. Dump the x-ray machines (which also aren’t good for you). Really.

Yeah, yeah, I understand why we have all that crap: 9/11. Also, hijacking planes became so common during the 1970s that “I’m taking this plane to Cuba” became a sitcom joke.

getting rid of the TSABut I’m willing to bet – with my life, and yes, yours, but also those of everyone I love and care about – that eliminating airport security as we know it would be a boon in many ways.

First and foremost, the hassle of flying would be greatly reduced. Shorter travel times would increase the appeal of flying; there are many people like me who drive up to six or eight hours in order to avoid flying in large part because of airline security. Because the roads are more crowded, people are dying.

Reports Bloomberg: “Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day.”

More passengers means more profits for the airlines and more face-to-face business meetings, both of which would be awesome for the economy. The impact could be enormous: during the five years after the 9/11 attacks, passenger volume dropped by 5 percent.

A recent study found that Americans avoided 38 million trips by air in the year 2013 in order to avoid security checkpoint hassles at the airport, costing the U.S. economy at least $35 billion that year alone. Extrapolating over the 14 years since the September 11 attacks, we are looking at a loss of half a trillion dollars in economic activity.

Second, taxpayers would save $7 billion a year by eliminating the TSA. That money could go to any number of better priorities, or it could be used to build more terror drones, or whatever, but still: $7 billion a year. (Obviously, we would need to find jobs for the 55,000 screeners.) That’s a lot of money, and well worth saving.

What would happen terror-wise?

What would happen terrorism-wise? Probably nothing.

Every day, millions of Americans get on subways and buses in American cities without the slightest pretense of a security check. How many of them blow up? Zero. Every day, millions of Americans ride medium-distance commuter trains and buses with similar happy results, despite the fact that they don’t have to go through a scanner first. The same goes for long-distance trains, long-distance buses, ferries and so on. (The TSA has recently begun targeting Amtrak and other forms of ground transportation, but only sporadically and – by all accounts – with no apparent results other than annoying everyone.)

If taking off our shoes is preventing another 9/11, why don’t terrorists target these other forms of transportation? Because they don’t want to, or can’t.

You are at least 2000 times more likely to commit suicide than to get killed by a terrorist.

To clarify: I’m not talking about getting rid of security. I’m talking about getting rid of the airport security checkpoints currently run by the Transportation Security Administration. I would maintain and even beef up security behind the scenes. Every plane should have several armed sky marshals aboard. (That’s not currently the case.) Check-in suitcases and cargo must be carefully tracked and scanned.

And what if someone brings a gun onto your next flight?

What if someone brings a gun on board? I’ve seen it happen. Get this: it was not a problem.

It happened in Afghanistan. Flying out of Kabul airport on a domestic flight a few years ago, I was surprised and amused to see that all of the US supplied x-ray machines were turned off and/or out of order. Passengers filed by; no one was searched. When it was time to board the flight, I observed several people casually stowing weapons, mostly AK-47 rifles, in the overheads. I’m writing this, so obviously nothing bad happened. And this was in an active war zone.

Afghans aren’t crazy or stupid. If a passenger on an Afghan plane tried to use a gun to hijack a plane, he have to contend with a planeload of similarly armed men determined to stop him. Chances of success: slim.

Which is exactly what would happen here. Since 9/11 there have been a number of incidents in which mentally disturbed people raised hell on American planes. Invariably they were overpowered, restrained and turned over to the authorities, usually by a coalition of passengers and crewmen.

That happened on a bus in Seattle recently.

let's get rid of the TSA Ted RallAnyway, it’s not like the current system screens everyone equally.

Pay $85 and submit to fingerprinting, and you can get out of having to take your laptop out of your bag, keep your shoes on, and your jacket thanks to your membership in the TSA’s PreCheck program. Determined terrorists, especially 9/11-style suicide bombers, aren’t going to be deterred by the application fee or the fingerprint requirement; after all, they know they aren’t going to be prosecuted after the bombing.

Oh, and I bet you probably guessed this one: most airport employees don’t go through any screening whatsoever. “One of the greatest vulnerabilities for this airport and probably any other major airport like MIA is the insider threat,” Lauren Stover, security director for Miami International Airport told CNN a month ago. It’s a story that many people missed at the time, but box cutters were found on several planes grounded after the 9/11 attacks; officials suspected that they were placed on board as part of an “inside job.”

In other words, they are making old ladies take off their shoes while ignoring the real threats.

Besides, whatever power there is in the argument that people who pass the TSA vetting process are less likely to commit terrorist acts is obviated by something that frequent travelers know: at many airports, security staff routinely direct ordinary, non-screened, non-PreCheck members into the PreCheck line. Which exposes the program as a fraud. And yet: there have been no attempts to hijack an American airliner since 2001.

Civil aviation demonstrates the pointlessness of airport security checkpoints. Every day, tens of thousands of airplanes leave and land at airports all over the United States, carrying passengers and cargo that haven’t undergone a screening. Defenders of the current system might argue that the risk from a smaller plane is, well, smaller. But I suspect the real reason has more to do with the fact that the wealthier, whiter pilots and passengers in the civil aviation system are simply more privileged.

Based on fear and paranoia, sucking countless man-hours and dollars out of the US economy every day, airport security in 2015 is like a religious ritual, something we all do even though nobody knows why, and those who do know that there is no reason whatsoever to do it.

Bye bye, TSA!

Boycott the Body Scan

If you’re flying Thanksgiving week, support the national boycott on the radiation-based body scan machines at TSA checkpoints. Insist on a pat-down. It’s humiliating and intrusive, but at least there won’t be a nude image of you on sale somewhere next year. Also, it slows down the system–which could force the government to reconsider this awful decision.