On Tuesday, German airlines Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, announced that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had informed his Lufthansa flight school of a "depressive episode" in 2009, The New York Times reported. The airline confirmed that after an internal investigation, the message was found in an email that the pilot had sent the Lufthansa flight school after taking a hiatus from training. The documents have been turned over to prosecutors, and Lufthansa declined any further comment.
This revelation is significant because it contradicts Lufthansa's insistence that the pilot had hidden his mental illness from the airline. At a news conference last Thursday, Lufthansa executive Carsten Spohr said that while the airline was aware of Lubitz's months-long hiatus from training, he ultimately cleared all of the necessary tests for flying.
Six years ago there had been an interruption to his training. We checked his skills, his competence and he went back to training school. After that he was successful. He went through all of that with flying colors. He was fit in all areas, 100 percent.
At the time, Spohr described Lubitz's hiatus as a typical occurrence that "can easily happen in our schools," and did not provide any more information on it. Investigators have also consistently said that Lubitz had hidden his mental illness from his employer after prosecutors found doctor's notes at the pilot's home. Now the story has changed entirely with Lufthansa's admission that its flight instructors had been notified of Lubitz's depressive episode.
According to mental health site Psych Central, a major depressive episode is a manifestation of either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder and is characterized by symptoms like depressed moods, recurrent thoughts of death, and suicidal thoughts accompanied by "a specific plan for committing suicide." In other words, it was a serious indicator of Lubitz's mental instability that perhaps should have been a more significant factor the airline's decision to hire him as a Germanwings pilot a few years later. The admission suggests that Lufthansa neglected to act on the information appropriately at the time.
On the other hand, however, having a depressive episode should not have automatically precluded Lubitz's chances of becoming a pilot. As Lubitz's mental health continues to be intensely scrutinized, it's important to remember that depression does not equate violent tendencies, and airlines should be careful in how they handle similar cases going forward so as not to encourage a negative stigma surrounding mental illness. They will need to create an environment that allows pilots to feel safe in reporting mental illness, while dealing with these reports effectively to ensure flight safety.
Immediately following the crash, Lufthansa offered the relatives of the victims compensation of up to 50,000 euros (around $54,000) per passenger. That compensation is separate from the much higher costs Lufthansa might face in a lawsuit should the airline be found liable in the crash. Lufthansa has set aside $300 million for this exact purpose.
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