Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

A new report by the French aviation authority about the horrific Germanwings Flight 9525 makes for disturbing reading.

We already knew that, on March 24, 2015, suicidal pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed an Airbus 320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

Now the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses has provided the gory details not only of the flight's final minutes, but of Mr. Lubitz's history of psychiatric illness.

Story continues below advertisement

He was first diagnosed with severe depression in August, 2008, but was treated and resumed training one year later. His pilot's licence was granted on the condition that he undergo periodic mental-health evaluations, which he did.

Mr. Lubitz sought treatment often over the years, mostly for vision problems, but his mental health clearly took a turn for the worse in November, 2014, when he began to experience psychotic episodes (meaning he was losing touch with reality). But his work was regularly assessed as top-rate, and none of his co-workers noticed any problems.

Between Nov. 24, 2014, and March 18, 2015, Mr. Lubitz was granted sick leave six times because of severe depression. He was also prescribed five drugs, including antidepressants, antipsychotics and sleeping pills. On March 10, two weeks before the deadly crash, a doctor recommended that the pilot be admitted to hospital for treatment of psychosis.

Clearly, Mr. Lubitz was unfit to fly.

But his medical condition, prescriptions and urgent need for treatment were never reported to his employer, by him or his treating physicians.

The BEA concluded, in chillingly bureaucratic language, that the "process of medical certification of pilots, in particular self-reporting in cases of decrease in medical fitness between two periodic medical evaluations, did not succeed in preventing the co-pilot, who was experiencing a mental disorder with psychotic symptoms, from exercising the privilege of his licence."

The French aviation regulator made a series of recommendations, including mandatory psychiatric and psychological evaluations of pilots and a call for laws requiring physicians to report to employers and authorities when a patient's health is "likely to impact public safety," even without a patient's consent.

Story continues below advertisement

This appears quite reasonable, at least on the surface. But the unstated assumption is that people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous, which, 99.9 per cent of the time, is untrue.

Pilots should be fit to fly. One of the conditions of employment should be regular testing – for everything from heart disease to drug abuse, not just mental-health issues – and the rules for reporting that information to employers and regulators should be clear.

But pilots, like everyone else, are entitled to medical confidentiality.

If you put rules in place that doctors must rat out patients who suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness, the only thing you will do is discourage people from seeking treatment. (There are also financial disincentives; in Mr. Lubitz's case, being declared unfit to fly would have resulted in an insurance payout of €60,000 [$88,350], the same amount he paid for his pilot training. He would have received no other disability payments because of his prior history of depression.)

Of course, doctor-patient confidentiality is not an absolute right. In some cases, such as child abuse, physicians have a legal obligation to report to authorities. They can also violate confidentiality if there is an imminent danger to the public, such as when a patient reveals a plan to kill someone, or to crash a full plane into the Alps.

There is no evidence, though, that Mr. Lubitz spoke of specific plans.

Story continues below advertisement

There were, however, a couple of things that might have prevented the tragedy. The first is adequate monitoring and follow-up when a pilot is treated for illness, psychiatric or otherwise.

Clearly, there need to be safeguards in place to ensure that when people are too sick to fly, they don't fly. But you need to strike a balance between safeguarding privacy and allowing for the sharing of health information to ensure the best treatment and the health and safety of the patient or others.

The other obvious preventive measure, which the BEA did not touch on, is that a pilot should never be left alone in the cockpit, especially with the ability to lock himself behind an impenetrable door.

Surely that is a more simple and sensible rule to implement than going on a witch hunt for all pilots with psychological or psychiatric conditions, when the vast majority are perfectly competent and capable.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies