Lufthansa Group chief executive Carsten Spohr has acknowledged that the Germanwings Airbus A320 lost over the French Alps on 24 March appears to have been deliberately crashed by the co-pilot.
Based on revelations from the cockpit voice recorder, "the aircraft seems to have been intentionally brought to a crash" by the first officer, said Spohr during a press conference in Cologne today.
After the captain left the flightdeck to go to the lavatory, "it appears the first officer did not enable him [the captain] to re-enter the cockpit to initiate the fatal descent into the Alps", says Spohr.
The fortified door to the flightdeck has an electrically operated locking mechanism controlled by a switch in the cockpit. There is an emergency procedure to unlock the door from the outside by entering a number code on a control pad in the cabin, in case pilots have been incapacitated. But that procedure can be overridden by the pilots. This appears to have been the case on the Germanwings flight, Spohr indicates. He rules out the possibility that any Lufthansa Group pilot or flight attendant would not know the emergency code to unlock the cockpit door.
He points out that the captain left the cockpit in accordance with company regulations. He waited until the aircraft had reached its cruising altitude – where pilot workload should be at its lowest – and formally handed over control of the aircraft to the first officer.
There have been no indications for unusual behaviour or professional performance issues in the co-pilot's employment history, says Spohr. After he started a cadet pilot scheme with the group's in-house flight academy in 2008, his training was interrupted the following year for several months. While Lufthansa is not legally permitted to disclose the reasons for the suspension, Spohr argues that such a break in itself is nothing unusual.
The pilot repeated assessment tests as required after such disruptions, and completed his training without further incident. He worked as cabin crew for nearly a year – which, Spohr says, is also not unusual to bridge time until cockpit job opportunities arise – and started his career as a line pilot with Germanwings in 2013.
Lufthansa has no information that could explain the co-pilot's alleged actions, says Spohr.
Meanwhile, the German government has checked intelligence and police records for information about the co-pilot for any terrorism-related motivation. But interior minister Thomas de Maiziere says there is no indication for such activity.
Spohr says Lufthansa will discuss with its flightcrews, pilot union Vereinigung Cockpit and regulators how pilot training and flight operations could be improved. But he asserts the Germanwings accident was an "incredibly tragic unique event" for Lufthansa Group, and that it has not changed his "absolute and full confidence" in the group’s pilot selection, training, qualification and flight operational processes. Germanwings pilots operate according to the same safety standards as their mainline colleagues, he says.
Lufthansa's pilot selection process has been conducted in co-operation with German aviation research centre DLR for several decades. Aside from evaluating cognitive and technical abilities, particular attention is paid to psychological assessment of candidates within that process, says Spohr.
He rules out a change in cockpit access procedures. While he acknowledges that in some regions airlines have implemented policies mandating a flight attendant to stay into the cockpit when a pilot steps out, he says such regulations are not employed by major European airlines. "No matter what safety measures are put in place, such an unique event cannot be avoided," he says.