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Germanwings crash prompts overhaul, calls for more mental health checks

The Germanwings air tragedy in France this week has led to calls for more mental health checks on pilots, and could push the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to advise airlines to make sure there are at least two crew members in a cockpit at all times.

An analysis of the plane's flight recorder recovered after the crash in the French Alps, in which 150 people were killed, appeared to show that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot on board the Germanwings flight, deliberately locked the commanding pilot out of the cockpit, and changed the plane's course to crash into French Alps.

"The agency is currently evaluating what can be done to improve the safety of passengers and crew in light of the dramatic Germanwings accident," EASA spokesman Ilias Maragakis, told CNBC Friday. He declined to comment on who was involved in discussions but said an announcement by the EASA could be expected soon.

Mental health checks

Debris of the Germanwings Airbus A320 at the crash site in the French Alps.
Denis Bois | AFP | Getty Images

Police are searching Lubitz's house and his background for clues on why he would commit such an act with unconfirmed reports that he may have suffered from depression.

On Friday, a press statement on the website of the German prosecutors office in Dusseldorf said that a search of Lubitz's house found no suicide letter but found documents with medical content which seemed to suggested Lubitz had hidden an illness from his employer. They did not say what illness.

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In a statement published on its website on Friday afternoon, Germanwings said: "Currently there is media coverage that the co-pilot of flight 4U 9525 was given a sick note for the day of the accident on Tuesday. Germanwings declares that a sick note for this day was not submitted to the company."

"This corresponds to the insights of the senior prosecutor of Dusseldorf. According to these insights, 'a torn-up current sick note, alsovalid for the day of the incident' was found in the co-pilot's documents.

"According to the prosecutor's statement, this 'wouldaccording to preliminary evaluation - support the assumption that the deceased had concealed his illness towards his employer and his occupational environment.'"

Following the revelations, there have been calls for more mental health checks on pilots.

The Civil Aviation Authority in the U.K. said in a statement Thursday that it was working with its European counterparts and had contacted UK operators to review procedures on pilots' health. It said, however, that adequate checks were already in place.

"All U.K. airline pilots undergo extensive and regular medical assessments to determine their fitness to hold a licence. As part of this, aeromedical examiners are required to assess a commercial pilot's mental health at each medical examination which, for an airline pilot flying with at least one other pilot, is undertaken annually. These detailed medical assessments are in line with international aviation standards."

Some are skeptical that the changes can work, however, not least of all the chief executive of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr. Speaking at a press conference in Cologne Thursday that "you can never exclude such an individual event", adding, "no system in the world could manage to do that."

Anil Padhra, a senior lecturer in aviation studies at the University of Kingston near London, told CNBC Friday that new technology could be the way to ensure that the Germanwings disaster is not repeated in future.

Planes could be fitted with computer software that overrides potentially dangerous actions by pilots, or aviation authorities on the ground could take control of planes if necessary—even retrofitting toilets in the cockpit, Padhra said, although he thought that option unlikely.

"We have driverless trains and driverless cars so we could, in theory, have driverless planes in future. But I think that actually there would be a big kick back against that from the public, aviation unions and airplane manufacturers too, as those companies also tend to have pilot training schemes in place and derive a lot of revenues from them."

Although technology might be a solution to prevent another Germanwings disaster, the public still trust human beings more than computers to fly their plane, he said. "In theory, there are technological solutions but I think it will be a few years before we even see glimpses of these."

Air safety overhaul

Moment | Getty Images

A number of individual airlines have announced they are overhauling air safety rules.

Lufthansa, Germanwing's parent, announced Friday that it would introduce a two-crew cockpit rule "as soon as possible in agreement with the relevant authorities" and create a new group-wide role of safety pilot who will report to the chief executive.

On Thursday, German aviation association BDL said all German airlines had agreed to discuss possible new rules requiring two crew members to be present in the cockpit at all times following the Germanwings disaster.

Elsewhere, a number of high-profile airlines including Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, as well as Easyjet, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada and Norwegian Air were among those introducing the rule in light of the disaster, according to various media reports.

Others, such as Jet2, Monarch, FlyBe and Ryanair said the procedure was already in place. The rules already apply in the U.S., according to U.S.' Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Civil aviation authorities in the U.K., Europe and Canada have also urged a review on cockpit occupancy and air safety rules.

The announcement by French prosecutors at a press conference Thursday came after in-depth analysis of the plane's flight recorder. The recording revealed that the commanding pilot left the cockpit, only to be refused re-entry by co-pilot Lubitz who had taken manual control of the plane and started its descent on purpose, prosecutors believed.

Lubitz was able to block the pilot's re-entry to the cockpit due to a security measure broadly introduced by the aviation industry after the 9/11 attacks, in which a pilot was able to block entry to the cockpit in order to prevent terrorists being able to take control of the plane.

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It was this security block that meant the pilot was unable to regain entry, however, leading to the deaths of all 150 passengers on board. The flight recording revealed the commanding pilot's increasingly desperate attempts to regain entry met with no response from the co-pilot in the cockpit, whose breathing can be heard throughout, French prosecutors said.

With new policies implemented by some airlines within hours of the press conference, airlines were keen to reassure the public that they had taken the accident very seriously, aviation expert Padhra told CNBC. Policies were not enough to prevent future events similar to the Germanwings crash, however.

"New policies like the one to ensure there are two crew members in the cockpit are to some extent adding a safety layer to what we already have but they are by no means a complete solution," he told CNBC.

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"It's almost impossible to ensure that something like this will never happen again. For instance, even if a crew member had been in the cockpit during the pilot's absence, say, in the Germanwings flight, the pilot could have incapacitated the crew member."

—By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, with contribution from CNBC's Katy Barnato