Germanwings Incident Could Lead to Deeper Background Checks for Airline Pilots Worldwide

By Michael Klazema on 4/2/2015

Investigations are still pending into why a co-pilot with the Germanwings airline might have chosen to crash his plane into the French Alps. The incident with Germanwings commercial Flight 9525 killed 150 people, including children and families, when the 27-year-old co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit and piloted the plane into an alpine ridge at 400 miles per hour. The tragic incident could lead to a number of changes in airline policy and personnel background checks, not just at Germanwings, but around the world as well.

Ever since September 11th, 2001, airlines around the globe have been implementing new security measures to keep threats on the ground. But while these policies have made it difficult for passengers to sneak weapons or dangerous substances aboard commercial flights, many airlines still could have blind spots when it comes to their own personnel. Already, airlines have been responding to the Alps crash with policy changes designed to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Several European airlines, for instance, have implemented rules that require at least two people to be in the cockpit at any one time. Such rules are already enforced by most American airlines. However, the lack of such a policy at Germanwings allowed the co-pilot of Flight 9525 to lock the pilot out of the cockpit when he went to the bathroom, take control of the airplane, and crash it into a mountainside.

Pilots around the world already undergo more rigorous screening processes than just about any other professional group. Between criminal background checks and psychological/mental health checks, only a small percentage of airline applicants ever actually get to take commercial flights up in the air. Still, there may be shortcomings. Investigators have suggested that the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 was hiding some sort of illness from his employers. Furthermore, the co-pilot's training in was suspended briefly in 2009 for undisclosed reasons, before "his suitability as a candidate was re-established."

Considering the recent nature of the Germanwings crash, no one has all the answers yet. However, these early pieces of information could easily evolve into the driving forces that change background checks and employment screening policies for pilots around the world. It's likely that all airlines are already going as in-depth as they should be with criminal screenings, and it's unlikely that one of these huge travel companies would miss a public-record criminal conviction before putting a pilot up in the air. Harder to find are the things that aren't public record, like medical information and mental health history. And according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, at least one United States aviation regulator is calling more pilots to face psychological history checks that would be considered "intrusive" in other circles or professions.


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