So, last Tuesday, Germanwings’ airliner crashed into the Alps, to kill 150 passengers aboard. The death of 150 people is shocking enough, but what makes the accident more shocking is the fact that the sudden descent of the airplane and the ensuing crash looks intentional. A few pieces of evidence released after the accident – the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was alone in the cockpit at the point of the crash, and on the radio clip recorded right before the crash, one could hear the co-pilot breathing normally and the pilot banging on the door, asking for entry to the cockpit, and there are intricate mechanisms that should be solved before the airliner begins to descent – added up together to suggest that the crash was intentional. The possibility of the co-pilot’s depression was suggested early on, therefore, and by today, the French prosecutors in charge of investigating the accident confirm Lubitz’s depression history.
Now, a lot of discussions of the crash seem to focus on the co-pilot Mr. Lubitz’s mental health. People ask if his depression really drove him to suicide as well as mass murder. Some suggest that we should reinforce mental health evaluation processes so that the mentally ill should not be employed for a position responsible for public safety. Others, however, express the concern that this particular incident may stigmatize all mentally ill people. I think these are all legitimate questions and concerns, but there is one question that I think is more important or at least as important as these questions but is curiously missing. That question is, why did Germanwings do nothing about Andreas Lubitz? Germanwings seems to have known all long about his mental illness. But the company nevertheless instated him as a co-pilot of an airliner that transports 150 people. Why?
I am talking about money. Or the commercial airline’s effort to cut the cost of production. Or its capitalist approach to human labor.
Let’s say that I am a shoemaker. I make shoes and put them on the market for sale. Once they are on the market, I do my best to sell my shoes. If my shoes sell right away, that’s great, but if they don’t, I will reduce the prices. If one of my shoes get damaged, it is still more in my interest to sell them at a reduced price than withdrawing them from the market altogether, because I already spent my money on the leather, etc. But, what if my shoes are damaged to the extent that they put the wearer’s ankles in danger? Do I still sell the shoes or not?
When Lubitz is trained to be a co-pilot, he is like a commodity made for sale. The company spent money to train him, and he is now expected to bring profits for the company. When he is found to have some mental difficulties, however, something could be done about him. Or nothing. What’s certain is that it would have cost Germanwings a lot more money to properly retrain him for his job, to find him a safer alternative position within the company, and to find a suitable replacement for his position than, well, doing none of these. In other words, it would have saved the company money to use Lubitz as he is and keep fingers crossed that nothing happens.
So, I think one important thing that we have to discuss is the company’s capitalist approach to its employees. Employees are humans, and all sorts of things can happen to them. It is possible that one is mentally healthy at the point of employment but develops a mental illness over the course of his/her employment. Then what should we do? Fire him/her right away? From a capitalist point of view, it may make sense to do so. But we are talking about human labor. A capitalist approach to human labor, when it is not adjoined by other concerns and approaches, is woefully inadequate. What I see in Germanwings’ crash is this inadequacy. Lubitz was not a ready-made product to bring money without fail to his employer. But he was viewed that way, and I think that is what took away the precious lives of 150 people.