90 Days after
the 4U9525 Crash

Thoughts of a former Germanwings Brand Ambassador about Safety, Culture, Behaviour and
Resposibilites of Passangers and the Aviation Community

(Credits: Photo of D-AIPX taken by Michael Schlesinger on Feb. 9th, 2014, about six weeks before its tragic loss in the French Alps, published on Flickr and used here under CC License)

I am German and I have been an airline passenger for 44 years now. When I first read the news about a German airliner with 150 people on board having crashed my first though was: ”German planes do not fall from the sky!” Like everybody I had cultivated thoughts that even if not everything is perfect then at least it is well enough organized to keep aircraft accidents a thing limited to Africa, Asia or in really bad cases the USA and the rest of Europe but NOT Germany, NOT a German airliner, NOT one from the Lufthansa Group and especially if it is an Airbus A320. Yet at the same time I must admit that I had stopped flying Germanwings some time ago — over safety concerns and their communication culture.

I love the Aviation Industry

Until then I had been what you would call a Brand Ambassador in today’s Marketing. I had up to 25 flights a year (all private) on board of Germanwings, did recommend the airline and new routes to others and informed my social circles about changes happening at the airline based in Cologne, Germany, where I currently live. And I followed them on Facebook where I regularly posted comments in their timeline. However if you love something, you also want it to be its best and make less/no mistakes (ask any loving parent about that).

And while I never was an airline manager I had Air Transportation Economics at university, and paid myself an IATA Airline Marketing Course with certificate. I had my first book about airports and planes when I was about seven and my first flight as a passenger at age two (normal today, rare in 1971). And with boarding a Germanwings flight every two weeks (statistically) I had experiences I felt worth sharing — good and bad ones. That’s how businesses improve the best way: Listening to customers and responding by improving. That’s what I believe in as a professional!

From Brand Ambassador
to No-Longer-Seen

Unfortunately company culture at Germanwings seems rather to have been built around a:”If you criticize it, you not love it and are not one of us” mentality. That’s a mentality leaders can establish to form a strong bond among employees but it fails to serve the need to self-improve a business and its processes! So from not extinguished lights on nightly approaches to Cabin Crew writing and receiving SMS and doing mobile calls while the aircraft was already on its taxi out to simple things like too few check-in staff at peak times: I got them mentioned. And it seemingly put me on a “red list” with their Social Media Team.

Then one day I felt like criticizing that Germanwings was posting pictures shot from the cockpit on approach to airports on their Facebook page — as a form of entertainment. Do not get me wrong here: I like such pictures. Unless you are a pilot you never get to see this view in life. They are great to look at if you are “only” a passenger in life.

But I also firmly believe that the job of pilots is looking at the instruments and out of the window with only the approach in mind. They should have the check-lists in their hands but not their smartphones. I believe that multi-tasking an approach to an airport and taking a photo does not add to safety. Yes it can be done but I believe that in any system you must avoid any unnecessary interference with the main process, with what counts and what matters. Else you can easily end up in a mess. And in aviation, only safety matters. Everything else is meaningless compared to safety.

So while some Germanwings employees felt it was wise to attack me openly and personally in that thread, I ended up on a Black List and was now unable to post on their Facebook page. That was the final step-stone in the Germanwings Social Communication Policy (in case they really had or have one, which I do doubt) “developing” me from a happy Brand Ambassador to a non-customer. I have been exactly twice on the airline since that happened years ago and even did not use the “Miles” I could have redeemed with them worth four flights. And no, I have not recommended them since then either.

Safety Culture in People and Companies

So first for flying from Cologne to my home-town of Berlin I chose Lufthansa — which is no longer possible now. Yet there I ended up in an even more shocking situation of safety neglect — as I view it.

Because today passengers feel too cool or too important to shut off electronic devices on board or to stop phoning when told so, to put their seat upright or fold up the tray tables in front of them, or do stuff baggage under front-seats in emergency exit rows (is everybody on board a first-time passenger?) Cabin Crews are under stress and safety suffers.

Because all these rules are there for one reason only: Safety. They have not been developed to interfere with personal freedom rights, like some people do seem to believe. Rules in aviation are there to be followed. Yet since everybody these days is an expert more and more rules get ignored because people see no sense in them — while understanding little to nothing.

So right after take-off (delayed due to heavy thunderstorms) the lady in front of me switched her MacBook on while the Fasten-Seat-Belt signs were still on (no operating of IT devices until the sign got turned off is what the rules and the pre-flight announcement say). I asked her to stop that citing the rules and all I got back was the question if I knew what the rules were there for. Well yes I know: Safety! I admit I came up with some unfriendly words towards her after that when again demanding her to stop breaking safety rules.

To make a long story short the lady complained to cabin staff and first I got treated almost as an unruly passenger and had to make my point clear. And just to mention: I gave the Lufthansa Purser every opportunity to explain to me that I was wrong and that it was not a breach of safety rules what the lady had done. He did not state so. I even went as far as offering him to stay on board for police to pick me up as an unruly passenger if he thought that’s what I am. That of course did not happen.

However while I got told that it was not my job to enforce the rules (which of course it is not), I also, upon request, was not presented with an alternative what to do in such a moment. The system of ensuring safety on board an airliner does not involve the passenger. He is supposed to sit in the seat and remain silent and wait until the fasten-seat-belt signs are turned off and the cabin crew can intervene (unlikely to happen after a crash caused by an electronic device inappropriately used).

Remember those passengers who stopped a shoe-bomber on Delta or a freaking-out violent passenger? They are not in the script for maintaining safety but they should be. After all, air transport is a service and as such the integration of the external factor into the service process is a pre-requisite for delivering that service, which includes safety.

Safety has to be on the mind of all
on board an aircraft

Yet while breaking the rules the lady was let off board after arrival. No prosecution of the breach of safety rules. I hesitated for a moment and thought about reporting the incident to police. Indeed I still believe it would have been my duty as a responsible passenger. It is not my duty to enforce it but to have safety on my mind and to act accordingly and to pass this thinking on.

So yes, since 90 days ago I have also been wondering if me reporting the incident would have changed anything in the way safety was thought of and handled at Lufthansa Group from my (maybe strict) passenger point of view. Because what I had experienced at both 4U and LH had been not just simple little flaws from a process management and leadership point of view (the only one I can somehow claim to justifiably take). They indeed seem to have come from a safety-culture, which had become complacent over the years of success, when British Airways or Air France had incidents and accidents but LH not.

The culture in the company seems to have become too little concerned about tight enforcement of the rules. Yes, some rules may seem odd or too tight to some passengers and lead to complaints. But no one can claim that they have not worked in the sense that them being present and enforced the safety in aviation has remained high despite the massive growth of the industry.

And given their dismal service and tight seat-pitches in economy, why did and do people chose Lufthansa: Because of German obsession with safety and technology. We are talking about an essential element of brand identity and company image here. While on-board service is what people experience directly, safety is the basis of everything else in in-flight customer experience.

Safety Culture is not Cowardliness

A few days ago a United Boeing 767 got diverted to Gander, a Canadian Military base, the most eastward airport on the American continent before going over the North Atlantic — for safety reasons.

Yet people who got served warm meals and had 200 single rooms on that Army Base provided (with phones), Twitter was filled with complaints. Safety seemed no concern but delay and missed meetings or flight connections. United may not have been perfect at handling the case but one has to wonder if people would have preferred to fly over the cold Atlantic Ocean at night with a twin jet with a major technical fault rather than having a safe night on the ground in a warm Canadian Army Camp?

Safety Culture is when people are aware that things can go wrong and that the best way to make them go right is to set rules and follow them. That is why I almost fell off my chair when I read that at Lufthansa Group there was no rule to have two people in the cockpit at all times — something even low-cost carrier Ryanair practices. It made me speechless: “My” German carrier and only one person in cockpit. No, the flight attendant cannot fly the plane like some 1970's “action movies” suggest.

When I took my first Transatlantic Flight in 1973 there used to be four people in the cockpit to help and support each other. Today the Navigator and the Flight Engineer have been saved for cost reasons and replaced by technology. And while we will never know if a second person in that cockpit of flight 4U9525 would have made a difference, even if only by being present and not giving the First Officer the feeling of being alone, it is common sense that a complex system like an aircraft is less in danger if two humans are present in the cockpit, than only one.

Let’s all take more systematic care

And no, that is not a question of statistics. It is just a common sense question, just like it is common sense, to take care of each other at work or at home. Asking people, asking colleagues or subordinates how they feel should not be a kind phrasing, it should be genuine. Communication and talking help and bind people together. Any Flight Attendant in the cockpit would have probably engaged in a chat with the First Officer. Maybe that would have saved 150 lives.

The First Officer on board flight 4U9525 suffered from depressions as far as we know and it is hard for non-professionals to detect these. But it is easy to just be there and to care. Care is something beyond duty books, something that cannot be written or ordered but just can be given. While engagement in what people work is at an all-time low in seemingly every industry, we indeed have to care more than less about what we and others do.

We need to be aware where we stand in process-chains and what gets determined or influenced by our decisions and our work. That is hard for many since it confronts them with additional thoughts and additional duties when people have the need to shed work rather than to add workload to their daily schedules. But a duty, a work, performed without full consciousness is not a work well done and indeed one where safety cannot develop or be maintained. Replacing consciousness with instinct and momentary decisions and approaches — which normally happens in stressful situations — is wrong and it can turn fatal in any area where safety is of concern.

Personal Conclusion

Of course, me reporting the incident to police that day would not have changed the fate of flight 4U9525. The majority of faults which lead to the tragic loss of 150 lives had already been made or were in the making far outside that incident. And after 90 days of having a sign of grief on my Social Media accounts rather than my own picture I will return to show my face.

I felt it necessary for me to write my thoughts down in the hope that more people will just act more safety-minded than before. Following rules is not for cowards as is accepting them. In all honesty: Apart from the five heads of states who command nuclear armed forces no one on earth is so important that a phone call, a text message or working on an Excel sheet could not wait another five minutes or even 60 minutes.

If you think different then you — at least in my opinion — have a true freedom issue. For freedom is not the result of breaking rules. Freedom is a choice, a mindset. Not one that says:”I am free to do whatever I want,” but one that defines when something is not necessary and when the time is wrong for something.

And when safety is concerned — on board an aircraft or at any other workplace — there should be no doubt: Setting rules and following them prevents accidents. And acting conscious and with an understanding for your work-results or behaviour and what they do lead to elsewhere in the system — no only your actual process chain - helps improve safety, if you speak out your concerns.

Just spare yourself the cursing in case you voice your concerns as a passenger, even if you feel stressed (especially then). Remain calm towards your fellow passengers — especially if you are male, wear a Harley Davidson shirt and have long hair. Looks do mislead people’s thoughts, even those of professionals like Airline Cabin Crew with daily customer contact. Take it from one who has been there. Because also too well meant intentions can bring unnecessary stress into systems. That’s what I did. You never stop learning, even as a frequent flyer or aviation lover.