Monday, April 13, 2015

Could it be a Catch-22 syndrome!

The number of air accidents and other incidents that have been taking place in recent times makes me wonder “What ails the airline industry, is the airline industry suffering from Catch-22 syndrome!”. 

Most of these air incidents had one thing in common. The investigations invariably pointed fingers for the disasters at the pilots!

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 was surrounded in mystery. No one could figure out if it had crashed or landed somewhere.  Based on investigations, the pilot and the co-pilot became center of focus. It was revealed later that the aircraft’s tracking devices in the cockpit had been switched off. A number of other revelations pointed to a possibility of deliberate attempt to crash the flight.

Investigations into the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17 raised similar concerns. Based on the last communication with the pilot, it was revealed that the pilot changed course of the flight into danger zone into Ukraine simply because he was not comfortable with the original course.

In the case of Germanwings aircraft that crashed into the Alps recently, a lot of disturbing facts were revealed about Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot.  It was reported that he was undergoing treatment for mental illness, neurological problems, and even impaired vision.

It was reported recently that the pilots of an Air India flight had a punching match in the cockpit, and still the aircraft took off. We could well imagine the mental condition of the pilots during the flight. Luckily for the passengers, the aircraft landed safely.

Many other air accidents and incidents were linked to deliberate acts of the pilots.

It was reported that a study funded by European Commission revealed that "stressed out" pilots warned air chiefs well before the Germanwings aircraft disaster about possible rise in cockpit suicides. The report also highlighted that some pilots were becoming "ticking time bombs".

If so, how come these airlines were not aware of the mental conditions and other fitness problems  of the pilots? If they knew about it, how did they allow these pilots on flying duties, putting lives of hundreds of passengers in danger? Is it just carelessness, indifference or because of severe shortage of pilots?

I am reminded of the situation as described in the best seller Catch-22 written by  Joseph Heller. A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules. Such situations often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over it because to fight the rule is to accept it. The author coined the term in his novel, which describes absurd bureaucratic constraints on soldiers in World War II. 

In the book, the term is introduced by the army psychiatrist who invokes "Catch 22" rule to explain why any pilot requesting mental evaluation for insanity—hoping to be found not sane enough to fly and thereby escape dangerous missions—demonstrates his own sanity in making the request and thus cannot be declared insane.

The catch-22 situation involves the case of a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier, who wishes to be grounded from combat flight. This will only happen if he is evaluated by the squadron's flight surgeon and found "unfit to fly". "Unfit" would be any pilot who is willing to fly such dangerous missions, as one would have to be mad to volunteer for possible death. However, to be evaluated, he must request the evaluation, an act that is considered sufficient proof for being declared sane. These conditions make it impossible to be declared "unfit".

The "Catch-22" is that "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy". Hence, pilots who request a mental fitness evaluation are sane, and therefore must fly in combat. At the same time, if an evaluation is not requested by the pilot, he will never receive one and thus can never be found insane, meaning he must also fly in combat. Therefore, Catch-22 ensures that no pilot can ever be grounded for being insane even if he is.

Coming back to the spate of recent airline accidents and other incidents, one may be tempted to ask several questions. 

Is the airline industry suffering from human resource management problems? Are the pilots being forced to do flying duties even after knowing about their mental illnesses, neurological disorders and other such conditions which should normally make them unfit to fly? Is the airline industry enforcing a rule like Catch-22 to overcome their human resource problems?


1 comment:

  1. When a Pilot overrides a built-in safety control, an alert should be triggered which a tracking station should monitor continuously until the plane lands.