Germanwings Crash

The King of the Skies

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If airlines recruit inexperienced or unconfident pilots, they put passenger safety at risk.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Richard de Crespigny became a hero in 2010 after he managed to safely land a Qantas jet after its engine exploded four minutes into a flight out of Singapore.
    • He suggests an effective pilot must be good at maths, self confident and an effective leader.
    • Around 6,000 people apply for a few hundred training places at Lufthansa’s training school in Bremen.
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    Audio

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Going it alone. Source: fotolia
Going it alone. Source: fotolia

 

On the edge of a nondescript town in northern Germany are a low-slung set of buildings. Functional and unlovely, this is nonetheless the place where dreams are made. This is the Lufthansa pilot training school in Bremen and the wannabe destination of thousands of teenagers, most of them boys, who grow up dreaming of being a pilot.

In an average year, more than 6,000 would-be pilots apply for a place in Lufthansa’s prestigious pilot training program. In a normal year, around 200 are accepted. In 2008, Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old Germanwings co-pilot who last week deliberately crashed an Airbus 320 into the side of a French mountain, killing 149 people and himself, was one of them.

Being a pilot is a glamorous profession, not least because the entry requirements call for people who are tall – between 1.65 and 1.98 meters, or 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 4 inches, and in good health. All aviation safety procedures are based on the principle that the pilot is the single person on the plane who is most capable of protecting passengers.

But the news that Mr. Lubitz deliberately destroyed the plane he was in charge of has shaken this assumption.

It has also raised questions about the future of the airline industry, the economics of budget airlines, and has thrown a spotlight on the personality and motivations of pilots.

Richard de Crespigny, a pilot for Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, became a hero in 2010 after the engine of his Airbus 380 exploded four minutes into a flight out of Singapore. After a terrifying 90 minutes, when shards of metal sliced through the passenger jet wings and the fuel tank caught fire, Mr. de Crespigny and four other pilots on board safely landed in Singapore, saving all 469 people on board.

“You must remain in perfect mental health to be an effective pilot.”

Richard de Crespigny, Qantas pilot

Mr. de Crespigny is the type of pilot every passenger wants in charge. He has 35 years of flying experience, and has flown in military jets and propeller planes. He loves aviation technology and understood in great detail the mechanics of the Airbus 380 he was flying.

He writes extensively about aviation and the advice he gives to budding pilots, which he showed to Handelsblatt Global Edition, is both inspiring and sobering.

His starting point, he argues, is that “you must remain in perfect mental health to be an effective pilot.”

He urges students to focus on math and physics at school and to avoid social media. He also suggests pilots go to university, to learn how to think more effectively, to be better leaders and become more self confident.

It is hard not to think of Mr. Lubitz, who joined Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa, straight from highschool.

Lufthansa tends to recruit bright highschool graduates with a passion for flying. Recruits must pass university entrance qualifications, but do not need a degree. Lufthansa puts them through a training program of 29 to 33 months, in Bremen and at its Airline Training Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

 

Richard de Crespigny. Source: Reuters.
Richard de Crespigny. Source: Reuters.

The program is designed primarily for young German speakers.

Recruits do not need to come from wealthy families but some money helps. They do not need to pay for their training, but must fund their own living expenses in Bremen. If the pilot receives a contract with Lufthansa, they must pay back €70,000 of their training costs, at a rate of around €300 a month.

Mr. Spohr insisted last week that Mr. Lubitz was “100 percent fit to fly” when he stepped into the cockpit of flight 4U9525 on Tuesday.

But subsequent revelations that he had a sick note for the day of his fateful flight that he did not show his employers, and confirmation that he was receiving treatment for medical conditions, raise doubts about this statement.

It also raises questions about Lufthansa.

The airline is in the middle of a huge restructuring program. Before last week’s fatal accident, the airline made news most frequently because of its strikes: its pilots have repeatedly interrupted work over the last year, furious with Mr. Spohr’s attempts to move them off their union-negotiated contracts to cheaper deals with less lucrative pensions.

European pilots who want the old fashioned career -- long haul flights, nights away in exotic destinations -- may have to look further afield.

Mr. Spohr had also made wide-ranging plans for its budget operations. Germanwings was to be folded into an existing subsidiary Eurowings, which would fly short haul routes only, with pilots again hired on cheaper contracts.

Mr. de Crespigny points out that budget airlines have added pressures to all airlines, and made profits margins wafer thin. There is “little profit remaining… to allocate for mentoring pilots and their careers.”

Lufthansa has recognized that young pilots may struggle to find work. In 2014, Lufthansa said pilots will have to spend some months of their training in ground departments, partly to get an overview of the entire operation, and partly to find work there before being deployed. Mr. Lubitz himself had worked as a flight attendant while waiting for a pilot job to come up.

Mr. de Crespigny advises young pilots to not take jobs as cabin crew or ground support staff. Instead, he says, if they cannot fly a commercial jet, look for jobs flying crop dusters or flying propeller planes in remote areas: anything that gets them experience in the skies.

All of Mr. de Crespigny’s advice is based on the assumption that being a pilot is a passion and a vocation, that promotion comes fasted in a fast expanding company and that most pilots will want to rise to the rank of captain and fly on a variety of aircraft on a variety of routes.

But Gert Zonneveld, airlines analyst at Panmure Gordon investment bank in London, told Handelsblatt Global Edition that the budget airlines may attract pilots with other priorities.

“I think that the type of role some of low cost airlines offer to pilots is a different job to the flagship carriers,” he said. “Most of the low cost airlines such as Ryanair tends to operate an idea that pilot returns home to base. So a pilot could work 900 hours a year but always comes home at night so can have a very good home life.”

“You may well find an average salary for pilot and first officer is lower than for a long haul one. But add in other elements, such as the fact that they only fly short haul, and are home each night, and they are not underpaid compared to legacy pilots.”

Mr. Zonneveld added that there is a different career structure for budget airline pilots. In airlines such as Lufthansa, a pilot gets several years of experience on short haul flights then works his way up to long haul and different types of aircraft. “There is no real promotion on budget airlines after a point. If you are a captain you are a captain.”

European pilots who want the old fashioned career — long haul flights, nights away in exotic destinations — may have to look further afield.

Lufthansa may be struggling to find passengers but the global aviation industry is growing. Boeing estimates that there will need to be around 533,000 new commercial airlines to fly new aircraft in the next 20 years, and just under half of these, some 216,000, will be in the Asia Pacific region.


Video: Airbus A320, a flight over European airspace..

Mr. de Crespigny points out that LionAir is one of the fastest growing airlines; it began operating in early 2000 but now has over 700 aircraft. In one way, it offers the ambitious pilot a huge opportunity. But it comes at a cost. These new airlines take on pilots with much less experience and training than their European and American rivals.

In April 2013 one of LionAir’s Boeing 737 jets crashed into the ocean off Bali. Amazingly, no passengers were killed, but investigators said the flight crew had failed to stick to “the basic principles of jet flying,” and the European Commission has expressed concern about “the low experience levels of pilots being recruited and used by the air carrier.”

But as European flagship carriers such as Lufthansa continue to cut costs and focus on short haul routes, the bank of experienced, confident, wide ranging pilots such as Mr. de Crespigny will grow smaller, just at the moment when we want our flights to be safer than ever.

 

Meera Selva is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition and has flown on several unsafe airlines in her time as a foreign correspondent in Kenya. To contact the author: selva@handelsblatt.com

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