LOOK OUT

Andreas Lubitz and the Global Pilot Scam Threatening Your Safety

Airlines in Europe push young pilots to the edge in a desperate struggle to live with huge debts as they fly without any job security. It’s enough to drive some mad, like the Germanwings flier who murdered 149 passengers.

03.24.16 5:02 AM ET

Looming behind the actions of Andreas Lubitz, who deliberately flew himself and 149 others into a French mountainside a year ago this week, is an increasing body of evidence that something is seriously wrong with how young pilots are trained, recruited, and treated by many of Europe’s budget airlines.

Last week’s report by French investigators into the crash focused on Lubitz’s record of psychiatric problems and the failure of his family, colleagues, and the airline, Germanwings, to detect what some of his doctors already knew: He should not have been flying and, indeed, should have been hospitalized.

But the report gave brief attention to work pressures that probably contributed to his increasingly desperate state of mind—pressures that are felt by thousands of pilots as a result of how a number of airlines now treat them as a cost to be ruthlessly controlled and exploited rather than an indispensable asset central to the safety of flying.

It is now clear that, in addition to Lubitz’s medical problems, nobody detected or caught the part played by what the French investigators called the “socio-economic” pressures on his deeply troubled state of mind.

The investigators point out in their conclusions: “One of the explanations lays in the financial consequences he would have faced in the case of loss of license. His limited Loss of License insurance could not cover his loss of income resulting from unfitness to fly.”

And the European Cockpit Association, representing 38,000 European pilots, applauded the French report for recognizing the link between “employees’ socio-economic risks” and aviation safety and said that it needed to be “more in the focus of the aviation industry and European institutions.”

Indeed, in Europe nearly half of the pilots between the ages of 20 and 30 are flying without the security of being directly employed by an airline. Thousands of young pilots like Lubtiz often face a long chain of debt and financial stress.

Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, charges students it selects for training a fee of 60,000 euros out of a total cost for training of 150,000 euros—Lubitz had taken out a loan of 41,000 euros to pay for his training.

A Lufthansa cargo aircraft carrying victims of the Germanwings flight 4U 9525 plane disaster travels past Germanwings aircrafts at the Duesseldorf airport, Germany June 9, 2015. Forty four coffins with the victims' remains from the Germanwings crash on March 24 were flown from France to Germany.

Ina Fassbender/Reuters

But the costs of satisfying the ambition to become a pilot can be a lot higher than those faced by Lubitz.

The Irish budget carrier Ryanair, for example, unlike Lufthansa, pays nothing toward the costs of qualifying as a pilot, which can be as high as 130,000 euros before even getting into a Ryanair cockpit. All this occurs at an age when mortgages and new families frequently add to the obligations. Lubitz reportedly planned to marry his girlfriend.

At the core of this widely practiced regime are “bogus” employment contracts—a term used to describe how young pilots are hired through an agency, not the airline, as though they are self-employed contractors, thereby stripping them of normal professional employment security and benefits.

This practice (for various reasons not possible for airline pilots in the U.S.) is part of profound changes that are putting new stresses on pilots in Europe, including one that was cited in the French report on Lubitz: the high costs to students of learning to fly and the debts that they incur, often lasting for years.

“There are plenty of people ready to lend you the money to become a pilot, certainly in Europe, even though the job market is quite precarious in your first few years of flying,” Capt. Martin Chalk, the president of the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations, IFALPA, told The Daily Beast. “I am aware of more than one airline where their recruiting and training programs are profitable to the airline. They don’t care if the pilot fails because they have made their profit from them anyway.”

The full extent of the stressful conditions facing pilots became clear only after work by researchers at Ghent University in Holland. In 2014, at the request of the European Commission, they set out to survey airline employment practices across Europe. More than 6,600 pilots, out of a total of around 65,000 in Europe, responded to the researchers, an unusually high response rate for a survey.

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Much of what the pilots said was alarming and the researchers quickly realized that they were looking at an unsuspected level of concern among pilots about not just the experiences of their workplace but the implications of these experiences for airline safety.

“Originally, the surveying was not done to unearth safety-related issues,” a veteran pilot told The Daily Beast. “It was done to identify employment-related issues. But the safety implications became an emergent outcome that wasn’t expected. But it wasn’t necessary to do that study to find that causal link. It was self-evident to people like me.”

The Ghent University researchers realized that what was happening as a result of the competition among pilots for jobs was similar to what had happened in the international shipping industry, where lax labor laws had been exploited to drive down costs and strip crews of job security—what the researchers called “a race to the bottom.” This should, they said, “raise an intense sense of urgency with regard to flight safety…we call upon all stakeholders to act on this clear warning. In the civil aviation industry it’s minutes past midnight.”

One of many pilots quoted by the researchers repeated that warning.

“The race to the bottom needs to be regulated by the European Union before passengers get killed. People are committing suicide because of this outrageous way they are being treated.”

Another said, “This industry is a disgrace. European employment law and working regulations do not seem to apply to the aviation industry, and those that are certainly not enforced.”

In answer to questions from The Daily Beast, the International Air Transport Association, IATA, said, “Issues concerning employment contracts are the prerogative of individual airlines. We are confident in the present system of pilot training and safety, however we believe that further standardization of activities and the creation of a performance oversight environment may help to drive further improvements.”

The IATA spokesman said he was not familiar with the Ghent University report and did not respond to the specific question of whether IATA had studied it. IATA’s principal role is lobbying governments and regulators on behalf of the airlines, not advocacy on behalf of either airline employees or the public.

IFALPA, on the other hand, represents more than 100,000 pilots employed in nearly 100 countries. Capt. Chalk, whose day job is as a senior captain on a major international airline based in Europe, says, “Stresses have been created that weren’t there before. We need to ensure that a highly competitive marketplace doesn’t have collateral damage. We shouldn’t be allowing airlines to erode safety margins, working pilots beyond sensible fatigue or stress limits.

“Even when people are taken on it will be on a piecemeal basis where, from month to month, they get whatever work their employer gives them. They often have high loan costs to pay, and all that bundles up into a very low standard of living for a period that may appear to be unending. It is a question with Andreas Lubitz, he was 27 years old and had only been flying for Germanwings for 18 months. He doesn’t appear to have had any other form of career.”

Capt. Chalk wanted to make it clear to me that he wasn’t including all airlines or even all budget airlines in his warnings.

“Some airlines are better than others, and the answer is not to pick on budget airlines but, rather, to ensure that regulators are insisting on minimal levels of safety that are prescribed at a global level.”

However, in the responses to the Dutch researchers, among the European budget carriers one stood out as the most egregious. They wrote: “The conditions at Ryanair are observed to be an area of concern… the position of pilots is becoming increasingly more precarious.”

Ryanair, based in Ireland, dwarfs all other European airlines. From January to November last year it carried 99.9 million passengers, and is planning to carry as many as 180 million by 2024. (In 2015 the total number of passengers carried by all U.S. airlines was 798 million.) In the six months ending Sept. 30, 2015, it had record earnings of 1.09 billion euros and expects its year-end profits to be up by at least 35 percent on the previous year.

Although Ryanair originally followed the business model pioneered by Southwest Airlines in the U.S., using only one type of airplane, the Boeing 737, and turning flights around much faster on each stop to get the most efficient use of equipment, the company’s notoriously hard-charging boss, Michael O’Leary, has since developed his own business model that screws down far harder on his airline’s costs; Ryanair’s unit labor cost is 6 euros per seat-mile, compared with Southwest’s equivalent of 35 euros.

Capt. Chalk’s problem with the Ryanair model is that it “moves risks from the employer to the employee.” And as a consequence, he says: “If you take away employment security from safety-sensitive staff you cause them to be much more careful about raising issues that they feel the employer doesn’t want to hear.”

One clear effect of this tension is that because pilots responding to the Ghent University survey were assured anonymity the number of Ryanair pilots who seized the opportunity to speak out was unusually high, 650 out of a total of around 3,000. (In contrast, out of 3,662 British Airways pilots only 73 responded.)

Of the total number of Ryanair pilots (the actual number can fluctuate between 3,000 and around 3,400) around 1,400 are captains and 1,700 are first officers. Between 85 and 90 percent of the captains are on permanent employee contracts, whereas as many as 80 to 90 percent of the first officers are on the self-employed contracts—the so-called bogus or agency contracts—where the pilot is acting, in effect, as a one-man company hiring out his services.

As the veteran pilot (who requested anonymity) points out, that’s a situation in which the majority of captains have job security and most of the first officers do not.

“Anybody who thinks there is no difference in the way those two groups respond to safety issues is living in Alice in Wonderland.”

Experienced captains get the better deal, he says, because “they are a core group and are much more difficult to replace.” On the other hand, “a first officer on an agency contract doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t fly.”

The airline’s pilots have frequently complained about how the company assigns home bases to its crews—these are the cities throughout Europe where crews are based according to the routes they fly. Generally senior captains can choose the cities closest to where they live, but first officers have complained of arbitrary assignments at short notice.

For example, last month the Ryanair Pilot Group that represents more than half of the airline’s pilots, complained that pilots at two German bases, Frankfurt-Hahn and Bremen, had been told that because fewer flights were being operated from these cities in the summer they would have to move to other cities. The pilots, said the Group, had been given just eight days to respond with their preferences without any indication that they would be met.

Ryanair pilots replying to the Ghent University survey also cited lack of sick leave as a source of undue pressure.

As one Ryanair pilot told The Daily Beast: “The typical pattern is that a pilot who has had more than five sick days in a year will get a notification on a Thursday or Friday to go to a meeting either in Stansted [near London] or Dublin the following Monday or Tuesday. In that time they have no possibility of getting professional advice over the weekend, and they won’t be told any specific details of what the meeting will focus on. It will be pointed out to them that it’s not really acceptable to be sick for more than five or six days in a year.”

Every six months all Ryanair pilots, captains and first officers, are required to have what is called recurrent training, where they are checked for their flying proficiency in a flight simulator. For every hour a Ryanair pilot flies passengers, 4.2 euros are deducted from his pay to cover the costs of this training.

However, despite what many pilots see as an unusually relentless pressure applied to the human costs of operating at Ryanair the airline has a virtually flawless record—not one fatal accident in 30 years of rapid expansion.

As Capt. Chalk noted: “Ryanair, along with all the other low-cost airlines, are very vocal that they do not compromise on safety. In large part, that is true. They often have young fleets of airplanes. I have no evidence that they cut corners with engineering, or that they don’t fulfill all the training criteria.”

It is also important to acknowledge that regimes like those at Ryanair and other low-cost carriers are, of course, part of the bargain that has been struck between us, the passengers, and an airline industry that has delivered a level of value and convenience that only a few decades ago would have seemed unattainable, and in doing so they ended a system of cartels that had kept fares beyond the reach of many.

This year nearly half the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, will be flying on scheduled air routes throughout the globe. And the safety record has never been better: In 2015 there were only three fatal accidents worldwide. That included the Germanwings mass murder-suicide and the Russian Metrojet crash in the Sinai that has been attributed to terrorism.

Those numbers translate into one death for every 40 million passengers.

How has this been achieved? Two things have happened simultaneously and coincided in their effects: radical new business models that make flying accessible to many more millions of people, and a technological leap in the safety-critical elements of commercial aviation. So staggering is this advance that if the ratio of fatal accidents to the number of flights remained where it was in 1962 we would be seeing a serious air crash every other day instead of barely any in a whole year.

In this transformation the pilots haven’t got smarter, the airplanes have, as well as all the navigation aids that support them. One by one the original main causes of crashes have been virtually eliminated: engine failure, metal fatigue and structural failure, weather, human error. (Last week’s crash of a FlyDubai Boeing 737 in Russia seems to have demonstrated that weather, if it combines with a chain of other factors, can still be lethal if due caution is not exercised by pilots and air traffic controllers. Fly Dubai has a budget-airline business model and the BBC is reporting that the pilot involved in the crash was about to quit because of fatigue problems—and that another pilot had fallen asleep at the controls from exhaustion.)

In an analysis made by Boeing, the three threads that characterize airline disasters—the overall accident rate, the fatal accident rate, and the total loss of an airplane—have all fallen steadily over the decades to a point where they very nearly merge at zero.

But pilots will always remain at the core of safety, the last resort in an emergency. And the demand for them will increase. Boeing has predicted that by 2034 as many as 558,000 pilots will be needed worldwide.

At the moment in Europe, though, there is a surplus of qualified pilots. (There is a shortage of pilots in the Middle East and China, and in North America the pool of pilots will soon be inadequate to meet growing demand.)

Cockpit automation has meant that the new generation of pilots has never had the “seat of the pants” instincts wired into them that older generations brought to the job. Nonetheless recent experiences (notably the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501 in December 2014) have shown that, more than ever, pilots need to keep sharp reflexes and well-trained responses for those moments when a human needs to intervene if the technology fails.

For that reason it would be dangerously complacent to see safety solely in terms of what shows up in accident statistics.

In the culture of budget airlines, for example, there could be, Capt. Chalk warns, “a growing risk that the management hasn’t yet become aware of, and may not be aware of until it manifests.”

And the veteran pilot adds: “If the criterion is simply, ‘Did we kill people?’ then safety isn’t a problem. But safety is not an absolute, it’s a spectrum of possibilities. The real question is not how many events you have had, but how many times did you come close?”

Of course, given all the pressures and personal hardships described here that are faced by aspiring airline pilots in Europe, the question is: Why do young people, as they clearly do, continue to enlist for pilot training? One pilot quoted in the Ghent University report said, “The flight schools are selling a dream to 18-year-old kids.”

And Captain Chalk agrees: “There is still an allure to flying, people will bend over backwards to get into the job.”

But then he cautions: “In this profession it’s not until your mid-thirties that you are getting to a point where most people would anticipate being in their mid-twenties. Income stability available to most professionals in their mid-twenties, certainly by the end of their twenties, is pushed back here a number of years beyond. It’s something that the Germanwings report didn’t address.

“When I began my career somebody paid for my training and I signed a commitment to work for them for a period of time, and so long as I worked for that period of time the training cost was absorbed by the company. They sank a significant investment in me and they wanted to see a return.

“But the path I took to get my job is no longer available. It doesn’t exist any more. It is a very difficult prospect now. I’m not sure I would encourage my children to take up flying.”