(Bloomberg) — For decades, commercial airline travel has become progressively safer. But one cause of death stubbornly persisted: pilots who intentionally crash planes in murder-suicides.
Preliminary evidence suggests that the March crash of a China Eastern Airlines jet could be the latest of these tragedies, said a person familiar with the investigation. If confirmed, it would be the fourth since 2013, bringing the deaths in these accidents to 554.
So, as aircraft become more reliable and pilots less susceptible to errors, murder-suicide fatalities are becoming an ever-larger share of the total. While intentional acts are traditionally not included in air crash statistics, they would be the second largest category of deaths worldwide if they were, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. By comparison, 1,745 people died as a result of pilot error, mechanical failure or other causes on Western-built jets from 2012 to 2021.
“It’s scary,” said Malcolm Brenner, a former human behavior investigator at the US National Transportation Safety Board who worked on the investigation of the 1999 EgyptAir Flight 990 crash, which was deemed an intentional act. “It’s a big concern. It’s something the industry needs to address.”
Until now, however, these rare but deadly acts have defied simple solutions. While improving mental health care is a priority, those who chose to kill themselves and take the lives of dozens of others at the same time on planes did not reveal any clues beforehand to co-workers, friends or family.
And because of the taboo nature of suicide, the cases create unique political and cultural challenges, sometimes leaving these events shrouded in mystery or open to dispute. The investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean in 2014 found that the plane was likely taken there on purpose, but the Malaysian government report does not contain information on who may have done it or why.
The risk of dying in an airplane has significantly decreased in recent decades as a result of innovations in safety equipment, aircraft reliability, and pilot training. After 5,005 people died on Western-built jets from 2001 to 2010, the total dropped to 1,858 over the next decade, according to data compiled by Boeing, AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. The odds of being on a plane involved in a fatal crash were about one in 10 million, according to Boeing.
But deaths attributed to pilot suicides have bucked that trend, actually rising, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. If the China Eastern accident is confirmed as the latest suicide, it would mean that deaths due to intentional acts have exceeded all other causes since the start of 2021.
So far, Chinese officials have revealed few details about what caused the China Eastern jet with 132 people to crash on March 21. The Boeing 737-800 flying from Kunming to Guangzhou was flying at about 29,000 feet when it suddenly dived at high speed, according to data from Flightradar24.
Government officials and Boeing have not announced potential safety issues with the plane since, suggesting that no systemic flaws have been discovered. Preliminary information from the jet’s crash-proof data recorder indicates that someone in the cockpit initiated the dive, said a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak about it. The likelihood that the accident was intentional has been previously reported by trade publication Leeham News and Analysis, as well as the Wall Street Journal.
China’s embassy in Washington did not directly respond to questions about whether the accident was intentional. The investigators are conducting the investigation “in a scientific, meticulous and orderly manner” and will release information “in a timely and accurate manner,” the embassy said in an email.
As with any accident investigation, it can take months or years to carry out the tests and analysis necessary to identify a cause and rule out even system failures.
In addition to the lost Malaysian plane with 239 people on board, a Lam-Mozambique Airlines jet with 33 people crashed in Namibia in 2013 after the captain locked the copilot out of the cockpit. In 2015, a co-pilot from Germanwings GmbH also blocked the captain out of the cockpit before crashing into a mountainside in France with 150 people on board.
Four other intentional accidents occurred at airlines around the world before 2013, killing another 389 people, according to AviationSafetyNetwork and accident reports. The incidents do not include terrorist acts, such as the planes that crashed on September 11, 2001.
After the Germanwings crash, which French investigators found was caused by a co-pilot who suffered from mental health issues, US and European aviation regulators expanded programs to give air crews access to more psychological treatment and encourage them to participate without fear of losing their jobs.
Surveys of airline pilots have shown that about 4% to 8% have thought about suicide, which is about the same rate as the general population. Far fewer people attempt it – and the murder-suicide numbers of successful airline pilots are extremely small in comparison.
Airline pilots must undergo periodic medical examinations to maintain their licenses and have been reluctant to report depression or other mental illnesses for fear of losing their livelihood, said Quay Snyder, a physician specializing in aeronautical medicine and co-leader of the Medical Association. US Aerospace, a mental health working group. The association has joined with regulators, airlines and unions to create counseling and other programs to allow pilots to receive treatment while maintaining their licenses.
But a US Federal Aviation Administration panel in 2015 found there was “no compelling evidence” that screening for suicidal tendencies would prevent incidents.
“It’s very difficult to predict who is going to commit a murder-suicide,” Snyder said.
Other possible ways to prevent pilot suicides go against long-standing safety measures.
Sophisticated locks on the cockpit doors that allow pilots to keep other crew members out were installed to prevent hijackings. French officials recommended not altering the door designs after the Germanwings accident, saying the changes could undermine safety.
One idea – adding automated limits to a pilot’s actions in the cockpit – would require a dramatic shift in aviation safety philosophy.
“I firmly believe that the pilot in the cockpit is the ultimate person or device in command of the aircraft,” said Benjamin Berman, a former airline pilot who also worked as an accident investigator. “I don’t see technology supplanting that role. But that leaves the driver in control, allowing him to do whatever he wants.”
Even the simple solution of always having at least two people in the cabin, recommended by European regulators after Germanwings, does not guarantee that someone willing to shoot down a plane cannot do so. While the details of what happened aboard the China Eastern jet remain unclear, it had three pilots in the cockpit – a captain, co-pilot and a trainee – according to Chinese media reports.
For now, aviation groups are calling for expanded access for pilots to mental health care, recognizing that routine psychological care may not make a difference in extreme cases of murder-suicide.
“It’s so rare,” said David Schroeder, a former FAA psychologist who, along with Snyder, leads the Aerospace Medical Association’s mental health efforts. “That’s the difficulty. How do you try to predict this? How do you intervene when almost all flights are not like this?”
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