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Airbus A320

Volker Wagener / dcMarch 25, 2015

Investigators still don’t know what caused the Lufthansa Germanwings Airbus A320 to crash. But Markus Wahl of the German pilots union Cockpit says it most likely wasn’t a safety issue.

Germanwings Airbus A 320
Image: imago/Enters

Deutsche Welle: Several pilots and crew members have refused to fly in the wake of the crash of the Germanwings Airbus A320. Is that partly out of protest against Lufthansa, which they perhaps fear is cutting corners on safety due to its difficult economic situation?

Markus Wahl: I haven't spoken with every single colleague, and I certainly can't speak for all of those colleagues, but Germanwings is a small airline. Many of the pilots and crew who have to fly now would have known the victims. It's like losing a good friend or a good acquaintance, and it's only natural that they are very emotional right now. I doubt that it's the best time for these people to be flying planes. I personally think it's a very responsible decision to say, “if I'm not able to give 100 percent, then I'd rather not fly a plane.”

Would you say that budget airlines aren't safe, or at least, not as safe as major airlines?

With respect to the pilots, I can tell you that they were both Lufthansa pilots. They went to the Lufthansa flight school, they were trained by Lufthansa. So I would definitely not support the claim that flying with a low cost airline such as Germanwings is less safe.

Is a 24-year-old plane considered to be an old plane?

No, with planes, you can't assume that it's less safe, just because it's older; it's not the same as with cars. After 15 years, you could quite rightly call a car a rust bucket. It's very different with planes. They are constantly being maintained, and every few years they're taken apart and important parts are exchanged. So that kind of age for a plane is nothing out of the ordinary.

Markus Wahl
Image: Vereinigung Cockpit e.V.

We still don't know what caused the accident. It could be that the crash had to do with a problem with the autopilot. The automatic technology in a plane is generally beneficial. But in what situations can autopilot be dangerous?

Autopilot can be dangerous when you don't have the ability to turn it off in the event that it's not working properly. But in an Airbus A320, you can always override the autopilot if you see that something is wrong. And then, like in any other plane, you can fly it manually and land it safely.

Are there different safety standards in place at Lufthansa than at its budget subsidiary, Germanwings?

Lufthansa technicians carry out the maintenance on Germanwings planes. The pilots were trained by Lufthansa, so I wouldn't say that there are any differences here. It's a Lufthansa subsidiary, that's true, but despite that, the safety measures are equally high.

Are they maintained as regularly as Lufthansa planes?

In terms of aircraft maintenance, how often planes are checked and which maintenance checks are carried out are very clearly regulated by law. These apply to Lufthansa, and they also apply to Germanwings. So there can't be any differences.

Lufthansa and Cockpit are currently at odds. Recently, pilots have been on strike, and there have been harsh words from both sides. Will the pilots union be making any additional demands of Lufthansa now after this disaster?

It's true that in the pay dispute, both sides have taken a very hard line. We don't see eye to eye on a number of issues. But right now, we're coping with a tragic accident, and so the conflict over pay and conditions has taken a back seat. For us, the dispute with management is not the main issue. Co-workers and passengers have died, and that's the focus right now. The contract bargaining can wait.

Markus Wahl is the deputy spokesman of the Cockpit pilots union.

Interview: Volker Wagener