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

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now and where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]