ACHTUNG

Lufthansa’s Confession: We Knew Andreas Lubitz Was Depressed and Kept Training Him

A week after saying Andreas Lubitz was “100 percent fit to fly,” the airline admits he told them of a serious depressive episode while training.

Andreas Lubitz did not conceal his “episode of severe depression” from his airline as had been previously reported. In fact, Lufthansa now admits he disclosed it.

This shocking revelation from Lufthansa shifts the responsibility away from the 27-year-old German who crashed his Germanwings Airbus A320 into a mountain, killing himself and 149 people, and to his employers.

In a carefully worded statement Lufthansa says that in 2009 Lubitz emailed his flight training school and submitted medical documents “in connection with resuming his flight training, about ‘a previous episode of mental depression.’”

It still remains unclear when and for how long this problem lasted, but it was already known that Lubitz joined the airline’s training program in 2008 and at some point between then and when he was allowed to become a copilot in 2013 had taken leave because he was suffering a bout of depression.

It doesn’t really matter when Lubitz had the problem. The fact is that he disclosed it to the flying school and that—in spite of his candor—he was allowed to resume training and his examiners did not think it serious enough to warrant either further medical examination or to question his suitability for graduating to the copilot’s position on Germanwings. The Lufthansa statement admits “thereafter the copilot received the medical certificate confirming his fitness to fly.”

(Last week Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, said that Lubitz had been cleared as “100 percent fit to fly without caveats.”)

Contrast this with the evidence turned up by German investigators who searched both of Lubitz’s homes and found that he had torn up recent medical leave certificates that, had he revealed them, would have shown him unfit to fly.

Lufthansa says it has submitted Lubitz’s medical records from the flying school to the Dusseldorf public prosecutor and “will continue to provide the investigating authorities with its full and unlimited support.”

The consequences of this revelation will be significant. The deep German aversion to the disclosure of personal medical histories, reinforced by the law, has ended up building a shield unable to distinguish between people whose medical and psychological problems do not involve a career in which they are responsible for the lives of hundreds of others and those like Lubitz who can become, undetected by the system, a serious threat to themselves and to others.

Moreover, there is a wider obligation here on the entire airline industry about how to screen pilot applicants and thereafter give them regular checks, always bearing in mind that the process should not be to find villains but to help people who need help before they become a threat to others.

It is not necessary to be a psychologist to recognize that there is a huge leap from recognizing a depressive disorder, combined with the urge to commit suicide, and reaching the extreme stage that Lubitz had reached arrived at when he killed 149 other people. This emphasizes the need for early detection and intervention—something that Lubitz now appears to have received, and yet he managed to give the appearance of being fit to fly.

In view of today’s admission, the airline’s legal liability will be huge. Lufthansa has already agreed to make a payment to each family of the victims of $50,000 and said that it was reserving a fund of $300 million for the eventual settlement. This is likely to be inadequate. Compensation for the families of victims of the 2009 loss of Air France Flight 447 has already reached $750 million and the legal settlement in the case of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is already estimated at $600 million.

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Lufthansa has canceled events celebrating its 60th anniversary. That marks only its postwar history. The airline was actually founded in 1926. When Hitler came to power in 1933 it was renamed Deutsche Lufthansa and pioneered many new routes, and for a while in the 1930s flew U.S.-built Douglas DC-3s.