The one wild possibility missing from most of the equally baseless Germanwings speculation
French prosecutors have said they believe the Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed his Airbus 320 into the mountain after locking the plane’s captain out of the cockpit. If that horrifying theory turns out to be correct, the question millions of air passengers will want answered, and fast, is: Why?
Right now, most people seem keen to blame either terrorism, or mental illness.
So far we don’t know much about the co-pilot, 28-year-old Andreas Lubitz, except that he comes from suburban Germany, loved flying, and that his Facebook page features a photo (above) of him on a Marin County hilltop, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. A Marseilles prosecutor, Brice Robin, has already suggested he's ruling out religious terrorism:
Asked about Mr Lubitz's ethnicity, Mr Robin said: "He was a German national and I don't know his ethnic background.
"He is not listed as a terrorist, if that is what you are insinuating."
Pressed again on the co-pilot's religion, he said: "I don't think this is where this lies. I don't think we will get any answers there." As for blaming mental illness — a dicey, slippery slope for a whole host of reasons — a Spiegel reporter is tweeting out that Lubitz’s friends say he dropped out of pilot training in 2009 due to exhaustion and depression. But as Robin told reporters asking if the crash was a suicide:
“When you commit suicide, you die alone. With 150 on the plane, I wouldn’t call that suicide.”I find it interesting that amid all of this baseless speculation over the motive for crashing the plane — using past intentional crashes as the only indicator — the only possibility that hasn’t been raised yet is that of a “disgruntled employee” mass murder. If we're going to get into the game of wild speculation before we know the full facts -- and, let's face it, the whole world is absolutely going to do that -- then that's where I'd start.
For one thing, there is precedent: A deadly commuter plane crash in California in the late 1980s, which I wrote about in my book on rampage massacres, “Going Postal”.
In 1986, USAir bought out California’s PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines), by far the largest airliner in California at that time, famous for its smiley decals on the cockpit nose — “The airline with a smile!” as its tagline went — and its chirpy stewardesses (Southwest Air borrowed from PSA’s model). That year, David Burke, a 35-year-old Jamaican-American who had worked for USAir for 15 years, moved out to California from Rochester to work for USAir’s new California subsidiary, PSA.
About a year after moving to California, in November 1987, Burke was fired by his supervisor, Raymond Thomson, for allegedly stealing $69 in cocktail receipts from a flight. In the months before being fired, Burke had lodged complaints about workplace discrimination with the California Fair Employment & Housing Dept after being passed up for a promotion twice by white employees with less experience.
PSA had allegedly caught Burke stealing the petty cash on hidden camera, and his supervisor, Thomson, personally saw to it that the LAPD arrested and jailed Burke. But the police released Burke without charging him — the video wasn’t clear enough, and the amount stolen too small.
Burke returned to Thomson and PSA begging for his job back, pleading that he had to help feed and clothe his seven children. But his supervisor stood firm — no job.
On December 7, 1987, Burke tried one last time to get his job restored, but once again, Thomson refused to rehire him. A few hours later, Burke got a ticket on the same commuter flight from LA to San Francisco used by his supervisor every working day, and used his PSA employee badge — which he hadn’t turned in — to walk past security with a loaded .44 magnum in his bag.
When PSA Flight 1771 reached cruising altitude over San Luis Obispo County, Burke scrawled a note for Thomson on an airsickness bag that was miraculously found later among the debris — that read,
“It’s kind of ironical, isn’t it? I asked for leniency for my family, remember? Well, I got none, and now you’ll get none.”Burke got up, grabbed his bag, and on his way to the toilet in the rear of the plane, he dropped the note on his ex-supervisor’s lap. In the bathroom, he pulled out his .44, walked back to Thomson, and shot him twice.
According to the flight recorder, a stewardess barged into the cockpit after the shooting, and told the pilots, “We have a problem.”
Right then, Burke barged in, said, “I’m the problem,” and fired three more shots, killing the captain and the co-pilot in their seats. The plane, a British Aerospace 146, lurched nose-downward, and plummeted towards a hilly cattle ranch in Cayucos at well over the speed of sound. All 43 people on board died in the crash.
Burke’s employment problems with USAir came as the American airline industry’s deregulation was decimating once-cushy jobs, negotiated by once-powerful labor union jobs — and PSA was a poster child of this airline labor union busting. In 1984, amid the first wave of airline shakeouts, PSA convinced its unionized workers to take a 15 percent cut, in pay in exchange for explicit guarantees that any future airline merger required honoring its labor union contracts, and other guarantees.
Two years later, USAir offered to buy PSA — but only if the union contract was broken and Teamsters dumped. As an incentive to get the workers to agree, PSA management threatened employees that they’d all lose their jobs if they didn’t agree to USAir’s demands, and they collaborated with USAir to help it compete head-to-head on PSA routes if PSA employees didn’t agree to toss out their union contract. The workers caved, of course, and in the middle of the USAir merger process, David Burke brought down PSA Flight 1771, killing 43 people — perhaps the deadliest workplace “Going Postal” massacre in American history.
The only reason I bring this up is, again, because if we’re going to wildly speculate without evidence, then it’s worth looking at the company as well as at the individual. It turns out that Germanwings and its parent company, Lufthansa, have been experiencing labor strife over the past year.
Last month, Germanwings pilots — which presumably included Andreas Lubitz — staged a two-day strike, as Reuters reported:
A long-running row between Lufthansa management and German pilots union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) over pay and conditions shows no sign of ending soon after the union called for a two-day strike at the group's budget airline Germanwings.Part of the dispute had to do with Lufthansa cutting pilots’ benefits, but the larger dispute has to do with using budget airlines to bust labor union power:
The pilots have also requested that management enter mediation talks on plans for the expansion of low-cost flights, which Lufthansa has refused.
The pilots oppose the way in which Lufthansa is pushing through the expansion by using a small business that is not subject to the same collective labor agreements as pilots at its Lufthansa and Germanwings brands. While we wait for news about what really caused Andreas Lubitz to crash his passenger jet into the mountain and kill 150 innocent people, the larger cost-cutting momentum affecting a new generation of pilots is not something that’s likely to change soon. As a banking analyst told Reuters last month during the Germanwings pilot strike:
"The positive side of the story is that Lufthansa is driving a hard bargain for its cost reduction efforts, which might succeed in the long term," Equinet analyst Joachen Rothenbacher wrote in a note.And really, what could be more important than that?