Aviation Safety

Danger in the Cockpit

Last year’s Germanwings disaster brought pilot mental health issues into the aviation spotlight.
By: | April 28, 2016 • 6 min read

Improved risk management, advances in computer technology and an industry-wide focus on training and analysis transformed commercial aviation safety in recent decades, placing it among the safest industries in the world for both staff and customers.

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Pilots now have their every input monitored and analyzed. This enables retraining of bad habits and a common aspiration to fly “the perfect flight.”

Improved airplane construction and in-flight safety systems also reduce the likelihood of system malfunction to a miniscule level.

However, a spate of unusual events in 2014 and 2015 serve as a tragic reminder of the ever-evolving challenges facing risk managers.

“Airlines are very determined when it comes to safety and security threats — they are constantly trying to mitigate risk, are very proactive in dealing with threats as they arise, and money is no object when it comes to implementing new safety measures.” — Nigel Weyman, CEO of aerospace, JLT

In July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine by a rogue Russian missile, killing all 298 passengers> This occurred just four months after the same airline’s Flight 307 simply disappeared — prompting many to speculate that its pilot committed suicide, taking 239 passengers with him.

This once inconceivable scenario occurred again less than a year later. In March of 2015, Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked himself in the flight deck and deliberately crashed Flight 9525 into a mountain in the Alps, killing 150 people.

Lubitz reportedly endured severe depression in the weeks leading up to the crash, but his doctors never told Lufthansa, his employer.

Within days of the Germanwings disaster, the vast majority of airlines introduced a rule that there must always be two members of crew in the flight deck at any one time (“two-pilot rule”), while the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 prompted carriers to re-evaluate routes, security threats and safe altitudes over certain geographical areas.

“Airlines are very determined when it comes to safety and security threats — they are constantly trying to mitigate risk, are very proactive in dealing with threats as they arise, and money is no object when it comes to implementing new safety measures,” said Nigel Weyman, CEO of aerospace at JLT.

Malicious Acts Offset Operational Safety Achievements

“The whole airline industry is benefiting from an improved period of operational safety, but malicious acts, from pilot suicides to the deliberate or accidental shooting down of aircraft, seem to have taken the place of expected operational losses, creating a sad counterbalance to what would otherwise be a very encouraging period for the sector.

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Nigel Weyman, CEO of aerospace, JLT

“Psychological and terrorist losses are difficult to predict,” Weyman said.

Aviation regulatory bodies are currently discussing, with input from airlines and pilots, whether to make the two-pilot rule mandatory, but not all airlines buy into the logic behind it, according to a pilot for one of the world’s leading airlines, who wished to remain anonymous.

“My airline has been reluctant to implement [the two-pilot rule], and even Lufthansa resisted it initially before backing down due to media pressure,” he said, warning that implementing a “knee-jerk reaction” could increase an aircraft’s vulnerability to terrorism.

“There are in excess of 35 million commercial flights globally each year and only one known case of pilot suicide in European airspace history, so you have to weigh up the risks,” he said.

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“If a terror organization wanted to plant a sleeper on a plane, it is far easier for a radicalized person to be employed as cabin crew than to pass the pilot exams.

“Many of my colleagues feel safer trusting the pilot community, and keeping the flight deck a pilot-only environment, as the chance of a pilot committing suicide is so slim it is not worth the risks associated with giving crew access to the flight deck.”

It could be argued that some aspects of the Germanwings disaster are rooted in the industry’s reaction to 9/11.

Following that attack, all airlines installed armored flight deck doors to prevent terrorists entering the cockpit — making it virtually impossible to break in if a suicidal pilot decided to lock themselves in.

There’s the rub; in mitigating one risk, you often create new ones.

“You can’t eliminate every risk from every aviation operation, no matter how miniscule those risks might be, and that’s why people buy insurance,” said Weyman.

Insurance Protection for Malicious Acts

Malicious acts by either staff or third parties are currently covered under stand-alone hull war policies, though passenger liability is covered under airlines’ standard hull liability programs.

Weyman noted that, in spite of a number of significant losses between 2013 and 2015, rates continue to slide.

“This is partly because we brokers have argued that these were very unusual events, the industry has closed the door on this happening again, and the world moves on,” he said.

“Mathematically, rates probably should have increased, but the aviation market is very competitive and overserved with capacity, preventing underwriters from reacting to these events.”

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“Insurers,” said Richard Power, founding partner of specialist aerospace underwriter Altitude Risk Partners, “must determine whether the recent spike in this kind of incident is a temporary anomaly or whether it is indicative of heightened risk going forward.”

Power noted that the subjective nature of the risk — and the fact that pilot trade unions have resisted the introduction of psychometric testing and the sharing of pilots’ medical information with employers — make it extremely difficult to predict how frequently malicious acts will occur or how effective new security measures will be in preventing future incidents.

“One option may be for the insurance industry to exclude malicious acts from the standard hull liability policy,” Power said.

“Unlike modeling the frequency of losses caused by mechanical failure or human error, underwriters are now faced with the challenge of pricing a much less tangible and quantifiable risk, and it may therefore be necessary to separate malicious acts out into its own separately rated policy, as is done with hull war.”

Power added, however, that brokers and clients have no incentive to accept such changes in the current environment.

The aviation insurance industry is awash with capacity and aviation insurers are under pressure to broaden terms while cutting their cost base, giving them little room for leverage.

Spotting the Warning Signs

So far, there has been no repeat of the Germanwings disaster.

While it is impossible to tell whether a similar incident would have occurred without the new two-pilot rule, the tragedy has undoubtedly brought pilot mental health firmly into the spotlight.

“The best way to prevent another Germanwings is to catch the problem at its source and stop troubled individuals from flying,” the pilot said.

His airline has increased the psychological component of its annual medical checks.

“The best way to prevent another Germanwings is to catch the problem at its source and stop troubled individuals from flying.” — anonymous pilot

It created a new “well-being officer” role, and encourages staff to “self-regulate” by coming forward with concerns about either themselves or others without fear of judgment or punishment.

French air crash investigators in March called on aviation authorities around the world to take this one step further by loosening existing privacy laws to allow doctors to inform airlines if a pilot is mentally unstable.

This clearly presents a complex ethical conundrum.

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On a practical level, the pilot said, it is essential that troubled pilots are able to seek counseling confidentially.

“The emphasis has to be on the pilot being able to pick up the phone and talk about their problems and get advice,” he said.

“If they think what they say will be reported back to the airline, they may fear they are risking their careers and decide not to make the call at all, which is far more dangerous.”

However, he added, it is important to keep the risks in context.

“Aviation is so safe now,” he said.

“We dedicate a huge amount of time and resources to identifying and removing what minute risks exist, with the aim of making every flight so accurate that the chances of a crash are one in a billion.”

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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R&I Profile

Achieving Balance

XL Catlin’s Denise Balan stays calm and focused when faced with crisis.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 6 min read

In the high-stress scenario of kidnap or ransom, the first image that comes to mind isn’t necessarily a yoga mat — at least, not for most.

But Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin, who practices yoga every day, would swear by it.

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“I looked at these opposing aspects of my life,” she said. “Yoga is about focus, balance, clarity of intent. In a moment of stress, how do you respond? The more clarity and calmness you maintain, the better positioned you are to provide assistance in moments of crisis.

“Nobody wants to be speaking to a frenetic person when either dealing with a dangerous situation or planning for prevention of a situation,” she added.

“There’s a poem by [Rudyard] Kipling on that,” added Balan’s colleague Ben Tucker. “What it boils down to is: If you can remain calm, you can manage through a crisis a lot better.”

Tucker, who works side by side with Balan as head of U.S. terrorism and political violence, XL Catlin, has seen how yoga influences his colleague.

“The way Denise interacts with stakeholders in this process — she is very professional and calm in the approach she takes.”

Yin and Yang

Sometimes seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. In Balan’s life, yoga and K&R have become her yin and yang.

She entered the insurance world after earning a juris doctor degree and practicing law for a few years. The switch came, she said, when Balan realized she wasn’t enjoying her time as a commercial litigator.

Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

In her new role, she was able to use her legal background to manage litigation at AIG, where her transition from law to insurance took place. She started her insurance career in the environmental sector.

In a chance meeting in 2007, Balan met with crisis management underwriters who told her about kidnap and ransom products.

She was hooked.

Because of her background in yoga, Balan liked the crisis management side of the job. Being able to bring the calmness and clearness of intent she practiced during yoga into assisting clients in planning for crisis management piqued her interest.

She then joined XL Catlin in July 2013, where she built the K&R team.

As she became more immersed in her field, Balan began to notice something: The principles she learned in yoga were the same principles ex-military and ex-law enforcement practiced when called to a K&R-related crisis.

She said, “They have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.”

“K&R responders have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Many understand yoga to be, in itself, one type of meditation, but yoga actually encompasses a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Each is a discipline. Some forms of yoga focus on movement and breathing, others focus on posture and technique. Some yoga is meant to relax the mind and create a sense of calmness; other yoga types make participants sweat.

After having her second child and working full-time, Balan wanted to find something physical and relaxing for herself; a friend suggested yoga. During her first lesson, Balan said she was enamored with it.

“I felt like I’d done it all my life.”

She dove into the philosophy of yoga, adopting the practice into her daily routine. Every morning, whether Balan is in her Long Island home or on a business trip, she pulls out her yoga mat to practice.

“I always travel with my mat,” she said. “Daily practice is the simplest form of connection to routine to maintain my balance — physically and mentally.”

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She said the strangest place she has ever practiced was in Lisbon. She was on a very narrow balcony with a bird feeder swarming with sparrows overhead.

After years of studying and practicing, Balan is considered a yogi — someone who is highly proficient in yoga. She attends annual retreats with her yoga group, where she is able to rejuvenate, ready to tackle any K&R event when she returns.

In 2016, Balan visited Tuscany, Italy, where she learned the practice of yoga nidra, a very deep form of meditation. It’s described as the “going-to-sleep stage” — a type of yoga that brings participants to a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

“It awakens a different part of your brain,” Balan commented. “Orally describing it doesn’t quite do it justice. One has to practice Nidra to fully understand the effect it has on your being.”

Keeping a level head during a crisis is key in their line of business, Tucker said. He can attest to the benefit of having a yogi on board.

“I’ve seen her run table-top exercises where there is this group of people in a room and they run an exercise, a simulation of a kidnap incident. Denise is very committed to what we’re doing,” said Tucker.

“She brings that energy. She doesn’t get flustered by much.”

Building a K&R Program

When Balan joined XL Catlin, she was tasked with creating the K&R team.

Balan during a retreat in Sicily, Italy, 2017

She spent time researching and analyzing what clients would want in their K&R coverage. What stuck out most to Balan was the fact that, in these situations, the decision to purchase kidnap and ransom cover is rarely made because of desire for reimbursement of money.

“I asked why people buy this type of coverage. The answer was for the security responders,” she said.

“These are the people who sit with the family. They’re similar to psychologists or priests,” Balan further explained. “Corporations can afford to pay ransom. They buy [K&R] because it gives them access to these trained and dedicated professionals who not only provide negotiation advice, but actually sit with a victim’s family, engaging deep levels of emotional investment.”

“I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Balan described these responders as people having total clarity of purpose, setting their intentions to resolve a crisis — a practice at the very heart of yoga. She knew XL Catlin’s new kidnap program would put stock in their responders.

“I’ve worked closely with the responders to better understand what they can do for our clientele. These are the people who run into danger — warrior hearts married to dedication to our clients’ best interests.”

But K&R is more than fast-paced crisis and quick thinking; Balan also spent a good deal of time writing the K&R form and getting the company’s resources in order. This was a huge task to tackle when creating the program from the ground up.

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“A lot of my day-to-day is speaking with brokers and finding ways to enhance our product,” she said.

After a few months, she was able to hire the company’s first K&R underwriter. From there, the program has grown. It’s left her feeling professionally rewarded.

“People don’t often get that opportunity to build something up from scratch,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience — rewarding and fun.”

“She brings groups of people together,” said Tucker. “She’s created a positive environment.”

Balan’s yogi nature extends beyond the office walls, too. Her pride and joy, she said, are her kids. And while it may seem like two large parts of her life are opposite in nature, Balan’s achieved balance through her passions.

“[Yoga] has given me the ability to see beyond only one aspect of any situation” she said. “I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” &

Autumn Heisler is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]