The Germanwings tragedy proves airlines are failing pilots when it comes to mental health

Everyone has a breaking point.
Everyone has a breaking point.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Pilots are people. They may be romanticized and lionized in pop culture and Hollywood, but ultimately, flying a plane is the same as doing any other kind of job—except when it’s not. Today, we found out more details about the final moments of the Germanwings Airbus A320 that crashed into the French Alps on Mar. 24, killing all onboard. The latest information indicates that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the flightdeck, and then deliberately plowed the aircraft into a mountain.

As authorities continue their search through the decimated wreckage, investigators must now try to put themselves inside the mind of this aviator. What could have possibly motivated Lubitz to take his own life—if that is indeed what happened—willfully murdering so many others in the process?

As an airline pilot myself, with a masters of human services (MHS), I might be more aware of potential challenges with the human psyche than most. Over my 34-year career for eight different airlines, I have come across the questionable pilot who might be better left on the ground, as life was getting to them and stress and tension was felt in the flightdeck. With that said, we did our jobs and carried passengers safely across the globe. And yet, there is always a point when someone can break.

French gendarmes and investigators work amongst the debris of the Airbus A320 at the site of the crash, near Seyne-les-Alpes, French Alps.
French gendarmes and investigators work amongst the debris of the Airbus A320 at the site of the crash, near Seyne-les-Alpes, French Alps.
Image: Reuters/Emmanuel Foudrot

What people need to remember is that pilot stress does not generally result from the act of flying the plane. I do not worry about the passengers, nor is it my responsibility to assess the mental health of my fellow crewmembers. Pilots are trained to do the job, and if we arrive safely, so do our passengers.

What can affect a pilot’s state of mind are outside factors of life. Pilots suffer from mundane financial stress, they worry about their families and personal relationships. Stress from a shift in employment, pension loss, mergers and seniority issues can all also impact a flight officer’s state of mind. Unfortunately, when the office is a flightdeck, these ordinary stressors become extraordinary, with the potential to impact hundreds of lives.

We want our pilots stress-free. However, there will always be an element of stress when pilots carry the baggage of life to work.

The good news is that in my experience, pilots are inherently confident people with large egos. Passengers, after all, want confidence in the flight deck, and for good reason: as pilots fly thousands of people daily in highly automated machines across many time zones, and often fueled by adrenaline, there is little room for error or self-doubt. The downside is this confidence may impede a pilot’s ability to self-diagnose his or her state of mind. Feeling invincible and being able to handle anything that comes their way is a positive trait in a pilot, except when it comes to mental health.

The challenge endemic to mental health assessments is that even the most apparently stable individual, someone who may have passed a psych test yesterday, can snap under the hidden weight of environmental or internal factors.

What happened in France is a tremendous tragedy—and we still have more questions than we do answers. But this situation has highlighted a vital aspect of airline safety, one that we should discuss further. We must make sure pilots everywhere have the resources and support to maintain optimal health, both physical and emotional, at all times. Similarly, efforts need to be made to reduce fatigue and ensure aircraft are outfitted with adequate crew rest. Finally, airlines must work to educate pilots on how to identify mental health issues, encouraging openness with risk-free self-reporting, and provide facilities for exercise.

Pilots are susceptible to the same stresses that civilians face on the ground—but unlike their peers, the consequences of ignoring those problems until you’re 30,000 feet above the ground are almost certainly deadly.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Read this next: The Germanwings crash wasn’t just suicide, it was mass murder 

Quartz’s full coverage of the Germanwings crash can be found here.