Inside Germanwings airplane disaster
Another 150 dead in the latest in a spate of disasters for the aviation industry. Although the Germanwings tragedy has been classified by prosecutors a homicide rather than an accident, the slew of headlines over the last 15 months could leave anyone ques
The human tragedy of these incidents is colossal and makes for heartwrenching and dramatic news. For airlines, knock on impacts are considerable, and the massive recovery and investigation efforts are just the beginning of a long journey to get back on track. RISKSA delves into the real state of risk in the aviation sector and unpacks how thorough coverage can mitigate the multiple impacts of such a loss.
On 24 March 2015, first officer Andreas Lubitz and captain Patrick Sondheimer steered the nose of a Germanwings Airbus AB320200 northeast towards Düsseldorf, Germany, after departing from Barcelona in Spain. Germanwings Flight 4U9525 – carrying 144 passengers and six crewmembers – never made it across the French Alps. It crashed 100km northwest of Nice, killing all on board. Shock permeated the media and headlines left the general public reeling from the news of another major loss following what seemed to be one of the worst years for aviation in decades. It wasn’t until investigators retrieved the data captured by the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, or the so- called black box from inside the plane, that baffling evidence emerged. It appeared that somewhere above the Alps one of the pilots manipulated the auto-pilot settings to put the plane into a steady descent to 100 feet with repeated accelerations in the last eight minutes before crashing at 6 000 feet above sea-level. In doing so, he was able to override the auto- security presets that would otherwise have sounded the excessive-speed alarm. A French prosecutor said this evidence, coupled with recordings on the voice recorder, confirms that Lubitz had locked captain Sondheimer from the cockpit and, while breathing easily as evidenced by the recording, proceeded with his plan.
It is important to note that at present there are two ongoing investigations into the Germanwings crash: that of the French Investigation Bureau (BEA) investigating the immediate evidence of the accident, alongside a criminal investigation by the state, galvanised by the loss of human life. The notoriously secretive BEA is yet to release a final report while the French prosecutor has already publicly stated that Lubitz was directly responsible for the crash; a statement many experts criticised as being pre-emptive. The fact is, however, that another airplane has gone down after the aviation industry last year recorded the highest loss of life in aircraft crashes in three decades, as shown in a report released by the Air Transport Association (IATA). One could be forgiven for thinking that it is time to switch to boat travel but this statistic is misleading as the occurrence of accidents for airlines with IATA membership has actually steadily declined year on year from 0.89 accidents per million flights in 2009 to 0.12 in 2014. An aircraft disaster is, by nature, a highly dramatised event, and the sound statistics of the exponentially higher risk of being killed in a bicycle accident or being fatally struck by lightning than in an airplane crash will not dampen the initial outcry. The Malaysian Airlines flight that went missing in the Pacific and a flight of the same airline that was shot down occurred within months of each other and still loom heavily. A disaster like this is traumatic, but it need not spell the end for the airline involved. Experts agree – and history has shown – that if an airline has a comprehensive insurance policy, and a crisis communication plan in place, it can mitigate and recover from a disaster of the magnitude such as the Germanwings crash.
In a BEA report, Genesis of a Feedback System Based on Human Factors for the Prevention of Accidents in General Aviation, the bureau warns of the lengthy and intricate procedures that follow a plane crash. “In the realm of public air transport, technical investigations into accidents and serious incidents may become extremely complex, since organisations are highly structured, the parties involved are clearly identified, and procedures are standardised,” the report notes. The longtail nature of these investigations has a direct bearing on liability claims, and a crash of this magnitude involves the gamut of players in the insurance industry. James Godden, head of aviation at Santam, says claims involving aviation liability litigation can be particularly lengthy due to the individual terms of each passenger and the varying time required for legal matters to run their course. “The complexity of an aviation claim will also add to the timeframe due to the fact that [input from] various experts will be needed,” Godden says. In a statement released by Allianz Global Corporate and Security (AGCS), a division of Allianz responsible for underwriting the Germanwings claim, the insurer says a preliminary reserve of approximately $300 billion was set up to cover all initial claims and costs, including compensation payments to the next of kin, accident support and investigation services of the crash, legal support, as well as the hull value of the aircraft. The liability for the hull is handled by a separate consortium of ‘ hull war’ insurers. War-risk insurance covers loss or damages and liabilities arising from war liabilities, including hi-jacking or any unlawful seizure or wrongful exercise of control of the aircraft or crew in flight (including any attempt at such seizure or control) made by any person on board the aircraft acting without the consent of the insured. Dave Rintjes, director at Airspace Africa, a division of Natsure Insurance, says he believes the cover of the hull may be settled under AVS103, where the hull and war underwriters have agreed to each cover 50 per cent of the claim until the cause of the accident is legally determined.