Carrier Informed Lufthansa on Defensive over Co-Pilot's E-mail

Lufthansa said the co-pilot who flew one of its planes into a French mountain last week, killing 150, had told the airline's training center in 2009 of his recent bout with severe depression. The disclosure put the airline and its CEO under pressure.
Taking a closer look at pilots' training.

 

Last week, a stunned-looking Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa, told reporters that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who deliberately crashed one of its planes in southern France, killing all 150 passengers, had been “100 percent fit to fly.”

On Tuesday, a few days later, Lufthansa had to admit otherwise.

In a short statement released to the media, Lufthansa said that it had given the Dusseldorf prosecutor e-mails Mr. Lubitz had sent to Lufthansa's pilot training school in Phoenix, Arizona, informing them of his recent bout with depression.

In the e-mail to the flight center, which Lufthansa runs for its pilots, Mr. Lubnitz informed the school in 2009 of a "past, serious depressive episode'' as an explanation for his decision to stop and then resume his pilot training.

The disclosure raised questions about how the airline handled the information, and about the earlier statement by Mr. Spohr, himself a long-term Lufthansa employee and the first pilot to run the airline.

Lufthansa, one of Germany's flagship companies, has always prided itself on its safety record, including the quality of its pilot training and its reliability.

But the way that Mr. Spohr, its soft spoken, bespectacled chief executive, communicated the information in the aftermath of the crash of its Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf has only raised more questions about the airline's handling of the disaster, which claimed victims from 18 countries.

Dusseldorf prosecutors said on Monday that Mr. Lubitz had received treatment for suicidal tendencies and depression before he received his pilot’s licence. Lufthansa’s statement released last night confirms that Mr. Lubitz had mental health problems, and that the airline knew about them.

The disclosure also cast a new light on Mr. Spohr’s comments last week that the co-pilot had been “100 percent fit to fly.''

The revelations around the crash and the co-pilot's state of mind have sparked a global debate on the mental health and medical confidentiality of those who sit in cockpits, entrusted with the lives of hundreds of people.

Unions argue that pilots are entitled to the same level of medical privacy as anyone else. Mental health organizations point out that people who suffer from depression can still lead useful lives without harming others.

The disclosures have increased scrutiny on Lufthansa and how it trains and screens pilots.

Since the crash of the Germanwings flight on March 24, Mr. Spohr has frequently appeared to be a step behind investigators and regulators, reacting to information that is made public not by the airline.

The duty of care is to get accurate information to the people that need it as swiftly as possible, recognising the need will be long term as well as in the immediate present. Robert Bailhache, public relations director

The French prosecutor Robin Brice was the first person to announce that data retrieved from the doomed flight’s voice recorder showed the co-pilot had intentionally destroyed the plane.

A few hours later, Mr. Spohr seemed more concerned about insisting Lufthansa pilots were “the best in the world.” He insisted that there had been no concerns about Mr. Lubitz, while also hinting that the fact that he had taken a break in his training may hold some clues to his behavior.

Mr. Spohr had also insisted at the same press conference that he did not believe it was necessary to follow rules followed by U.S. airlines and mandate that there should be two people in the cockpit at all times. By Friday, after several European airlines had done just that, Mr. Spohr said such a rule would in fact be introduced.

Robert Bailhache, director of public relations firm Neustria Partners who has also worked for several banks including HSBC and RBS in the wake of the financial crisis, told Handelsblatt Global Edition that leaders of companies must grasp the big picture when disaster strikes.

“What you have to do quickly in any disaster is get the key people - operations as well as leadership - to delegate day-to-day affairs and grasp the quantum of what the organisation is dealing with - seeing the gravity of the situation, recognising the need for focus, process and order, keeping calm,” he said.

“The duty of care is to get accurate information to the people that need it as swiftly as possible, recognising the need will be long term as well as in the immediate present.”

 

CEO of Lufthansa Carsten Spohr talks to the press in Barcelona. Source; AFP

 

It remains to be seen if Mr. Spohr, at 48, one of the younger chief executives of a listed German company, is the right person for the job. He was appointed chief executive of Lufthansa just over a year ago in the hope that his affable personality would soothe nerves at Lufthansa, which had been struck by falling profits, unsuccessful expansions and clashes between management and crew.

The board had wanted to appoint an outsider to shake up the company but ultimately decided that Mr. Spohr, who had  joined Lufthansa in 1994, was in a better position to rethink strategy. But Lufthansa’s board does not always see eye to eye with its international shareholders over recruitment.

At the moment, 71.2 percent of Lufthansa shareholders are German, but there is a substantial chunk held by U.S. activist investors. BlackRock holds a 2.96 percent stake in the company, Capital group holds 2.95 percent and Templeton Global Advisors has 5 percent. In 2013, Lufthansa’s supervisory board: a more powerful version of a non-executive board, appointed former chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber as its chairman, in the face of furious opposition from investors, who complained that Mr. Mayrhuber had failed at Lufthansa and had no future at the company.

That time, the supervisory board won, and Mr. Mayrhuber took up his post, and Mr. Spohr’s appointment was seen as another indication of its preference for internal candidates.

 

 

When his appointment was announced, Mr. Spohr  described himself as “a Lufthansa man, born and bred.” The fact that he is a trained pilot who takes frequent flight simulations to keep up his skills had made him popular with Lufthansa pilots, but even he was unable to repair crew’s relations with management: Lufthansa pilot have gone on strike some 13 times in the last year, mainly in protest at Mr. Spohr’s attempts to move them to cheaper contracts.

Last week’s crash is moving Lufthansa into uncharted waters, and Mr. Spohr’s future now depends on how the investigation into the crash proceeds. The French Aviation authority, the BEA, said on Tuesday that it is looking at whether “systemic weaknesses could have played a role in the crash. This could include Lufthansa’s failure to correctly psychologically profile its staff.

The BEA is not afraid to take an in depth look at pilot behavior. When an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, killing all 228 people on board, Air France blamed mechanical failure after its sensors iced over. But after the flight’s black box was recovered in 2011, the BEA said pilot error was also to blame. In their report they said the pilots had time to save the plane, but reacted incorrectly.

Air France shares fell sharply in the months after the report, which ultimately cost chief executive Pierre Henri Gourgeon his job. He resigned in October 2011 and chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta was asked to lead the company. He had been chief executive of Air France in the 1990s, and the board considered him “a safe pair of hands at a turbulent time.”

Since the crash, Lufthansa shares have slipped, but not gone into freefall. They are down 3.5 percent in the last week, currently trading at €13.57. Investors are, for now, giving the airline the benefit of the doubt.

If Air France’s experience is anything to go by, Mr. Spohr’s job is safe for the time being, but his future depends on the investigators: If they find that Lufthansa was somehow remiss in allowing Mr. Lubitz to fly, he looks vulnerable.

 

Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]