Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rethinking Airline Safety

Flying is hailed as the "safest" modern convention of transport. Regrettably, with an uncanny surge in incidents in recent months and the preceding years, many now see its vulnerabilities.

In 2014, a total of 1,098 lost their lives on commercial flights. While this is an unfortunately high
number of casualties, the total number of passengers was estimated at around 3,3 billion by
the International Air Transport Association. Roughly calculating, the likelihood of any one commercial passenger dying on their flight was, thus, 0.0000003%.

Why is it not all good news? Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to
Kuala Lumpur, on July 17th, was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile. The event trumpeted the need to recontextualize international flight paths during ongoing armed conflicts. Some airlines did consider the dangers of such a calamity occurring, especially after the downing of various planes belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force. The national carrier of Malaysia was not one of them, however - even after 49 were killed weeks prior, when a Ukrainian Ilyushin Il-76 was brought down.

The tragedy of lives being lost is only one aspect of the incident. Another is that investigators were unable to carry out their work due to the presence of insurgents. Bodies lay in the scorching summer heat slowly decomposing for days before they were eventually taken away. The handling of the event was, thus, truly shameful.

And, of course, that was not the only 777 the Malaysian national carrier lost in 2014. The remnants of Malaysian Airlines MH370 are yet to be located, well over a year after the plane was first reported missing. While there is certainly no hope of recovering human remains, finding the black boxes would serve investigators with the crucial evidence as to why the aircraft crashed. Without finding them, it will remain impossible to assuredly find the reason. Once more, the handling of the incident by Malaysian Airlines, months before the downing of Flight 17, was fairly unscrupulous.

The most recent aeronautical disaster has highlighted a very different issue. Andreas Lubitz, a Germanwings co-pilot, had been dealing with depression during the training he was undergoing to become a pilot, according to the Telegraph. While the circumstances of the illness with which Lubitz was later diagnosed remain veiled, it is clear that it meant an end to his career flying. The fact a diagnosis had been made and Lubitz was still able to fly elucidates the lack of communication  between doctors and the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (Federal Office for Civil Aviation of Germany).

Since Lubitz's illness was either not discovered or properly handled by Germanwings administration, he was able to steer 144 of his passengers and 5 of his crew towards their death. Many media outlets have mistakenly reported on the how a copilot cannot assume control of an aircraft, as was the case on Flight 9525 - this is simply not true. Further, this mass tragedy did not occur because the pilot had to use the restroom, but because Andreas Lubitz was ill and had decided to kill both himself and all onboard.

The event sheds light on the importance of the wellbeing of our pilots and the need to extend protocol to provide better oversight. Random drug testing of pilots, screening of their social media fingerprints and establishing communication protocol between doctors and civil aviation agencies could all be effective measures providing a better idea of who it is in the cockpit and what they may be going through.

Today, April 14th 2015, we have once more been acquainted with an additional vulnerability of flying. With the technological advancements that have come onboard, particularly the integration of WiFi as a passenger service, cockpit security has been compromised. The gap that now exists on hundreds of "ultra high-tech" aircrafts is one hackers could, potentially, take advantage of. News of
this has now spread around the world - a mistake that should never have occurred. Extremist organizations, had they not known of this security lapse previously, now do.

The only pragmatic decision to make is to suspend such services on commercial flights. Otherwise, all that would have been accomplished is making the world more aware of a detrimental weakness that may, at this point in time, be the biggest threat to civil aviation since the early 2000s.

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