Germanwings Airplane Crash: Was it a “Reasonably Foreseeable Hazard” or “Reasonably Likely to Occur”?

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative

GermanwingsWas last week’s Germanwings intentional airplane crash by a rogue pilot a “reasonably foreseeable hazard”? Was it “reasonably likely to occur”? What is the regulatory or jury-determined legal liability expectation of what is “reasonably” and “likely”? For Food Fraud: To-be-determined.

The Germanwings plane crash from last week is a horrible tragedy on many fronts. The cause points to an intentional act by the co-pilot. The result was the crash and death of all 150 people on board. The co-pilot had a medical condition (still undefined but there is speculation) that he did not reveal to the employer. Investigators stated they found a torn-up doctor’s note stating the co-pilot was “… too ill to work, including on the day of the crash.”

It was reported that “Some international airlines responded to the crash by introducing new rules requiring that two crew members always be present in the cockpit. The airlines that said they were instituting a two-person rule in the cockpit included Air Canada, EasyJet and Norwegian Air Shuttle.”  “The European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA], based in Cologne, Germany, also advised airlines across the region to adopt a two-person rule. The agency said the recommendation was temporary, pending the outcome of the French investigation into the Germanwings crash.”

This article reviewed previous suspicious related airplane crashes:

  1. 2013: Mozambique Airlines, Dead: 33, “When the flight’s co-pilot left to use the lavatory, the captain locked him out of the cockpit and manually steered the plan downward.”
  2. 1999: EgyptAir, Dead: 217, “Investigators conclude that the most likely explanation was that that co-pilot, … deliberately brought down the plane… / The flight data recorder showed that he waited for the captain to leave the cockpit and then disengaged the autopilot.”
  3. 1997: Dead: 104, “[The plane] was cruising at 35,000 feet when it suddenly dove… /[The pilot] had recently been demoted and disciplined by the airline and had large gambling debts.”
  4. 1994: Air Morocco, Dead: 44, “The pilot… intentionally disconnected the plane’s automatic navigation system… and crashed the plane… shortly after takeoff…”
  5. 1992: Japan Air Lines, Dead: 24 of 166 passengers, “…the pilot… send the plane into Tokyo Bay moments before it was to land… / He had a history of “psychosomatic disorders” in the late 1980’s but airline doctors said he was fit for duty.”

Reasonably Foreseeable Hazard? Reasonably Likely to Occur?

This incident raises some interesting questions about the definition of what is a “reasonably foreseeable hazard” and what is “reasonably likely to occur.” This incident also provides an example of the difference between (1) the need or expectation to address a hazard and (2) knowledge that an incident could occur. The data is that there were five related suspicious airplane crashes in the last 23 years. Though it could be argued that a Probabilistic Risk Assessment would be an inappropriate assessment for this type of “vulnerability” there would have been an infinitesimal probability of this incident occurring. That said, the intentional airplane crashes are not unheard of.

Prevention> Intervention> Response

For Food Fraud Prevention we have discussed the process of prevention to intervention to response. We note that after a new incident the process starts at Intervention, then to Response, and finally back up to Prevention. By definition the new incident either defines a previously unheard-of risk (a “Black Swan” event) or provides new information on a previously known risk (a “Gray Swan” event). (Note: see previous blog post on “Beware the Black Swans of Food Fraud”.)


  • This Incident: The plane has already crashed. The incident has passed. There is no Intervention for this incident.
  • Future Incidents: This would focus on how to intervene in future situations where a pilot may try to take over the cockpit. Actually expand this to anyone with access to the cockpit including other staff or a passenger. There are times during a flight when the cockpit door does open. The health of the pilot would also be a consideration but that is more “traditional criminology” focusing on the perpetrator, not “environmental criminology” focusing on managing the “space” of the crime – Situational Crime Prevention. The company has more control of the physical space of the crime rather than of the perpetrators.


  • This Incident: This incident has passed so no Response.
  • Future Incidents – Immediate: Airlines and the EASA have implemented a temporary mandatory requirement that two pilots be in the cockpit at all times even if this means a third pilot is required on a flight. (This will be interesting on flights where there are only two seats in the cockpit.)
  • Future Incidents – Future: This would technically be addressed under the Prevention category.
  • In General: It appears that the Response for this and other incidents is related to the catastrophic nature of the risk and the clarity of the immediate effect of a countermeasure. Requiring two pilots to be in an airplane cockpit can be implemented immediately and there is logic to how this reduces the “crime opportunity.”


  • Future Incidents: It appears longer-term research into Prevention is already underway. The “two-pilot” rule may become – or may just have become – a standard industry practice.

The Germanwings airplane crash provides a case study to define the nuance of “reasonably foreseeable hazard” and “reasonably likely to occur.” For Food Fraud Prevention this incident emphasizes the importance of taking the time and effort to thoroughly and precisely define the fundamental concepts.  While this will require a lot more consideration and research, this incident seems to emphasize a focus on prevention and reducing vulnerabilities. For Food Fraud these are already core, fundamental concepts. JWS.

Reference: Eddy, Melissa, Bilefsky, Dan, & Clark, Nicola, (2015) Co-Pilot in Germanwings Crash Hid Mental Illness From Employer, Authorities Say, New York Times, March 27, 2015,

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John Spink
Dr. Spink has been focused on product fraud since the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Program and the School of Packaging began research on the topic in 2006. This work expanded to the behavioral sciences and criminology and led to the establishment of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Initiative in 2008. In 2009 the work shifted to the School of Criminal Justice where the Initiative evolved into a Program.