Lufthansa CEO is not doing enough to reassure passengers, say PR pros

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr spoke about security and safety procedures during a press conference Thursday.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr at Thursday's press conference
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr at Thursday's press conference

COLOGNE, GERMANY: Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr needs to reassure concerned passengers about issues related to the airline’s procedures for cockpit security and pilots’ mental health screening, say crisis experts.

A press conference was held Thursday following the airline’s revelation that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz appeared to have prevented the captain from re-entering the cabin after a toilet break before intentionally crashing the Germanwings plane full of 150 people into a remote area of the French Alps on Tuesday.

During the conference, Spohr appeared defensive about the airline’s safety and security procedures.

A hot button topic at the Q&A session was that the company’s pilots do not undergo psychological testing.

"Passengers will be concerned Germanwings pilots are not being properly checked, now that one of them has seemingly deliberately brought down the plane," said Paul Charles, founder and CEO of Perowne Charles Communications. "Lufthansa will have to say more to reassure media and passengers that their pilots are regularly psychologically tested, are fit for purpose, and that there is no breakdown in trust in the cockpit."

Spohr said he does "not have any clues" about why Lubitz crashed the plane, adding that the co-pilot had interrupted his training for several months and then completed it, which is not unusual.

Lubitz passed all flight examinations and medical examinations, and was "100% fit to fly," he said during the conference.

"My firm confidence in the selection, training, work, and qualifications of all pilots has not been touched by this single tragedy," he added.

Lufthansa’s cockpit regulations were also heavily questioned at the conference. In Europe, unlike in the US, regulations do not stipulate that two people must be in the cockpit at all times. Spohr noted that he is not aware of any of the company’s competitors that implement such a procedure.

When asked at the conference if Lufthansa and Germanwings will consider changing its regulations about the presence of a flight attendant if the pilot is absent from the cockpit, Spohr said he doesn’t see "any need to change [Lufthansa’s] procedures."

Ernest DelBuono, SVP, chair of the crisis practice at Levick, said this situation could be a "threshold moment" in terms of a broader examination of pilot behavior and cockpit safety at all airlines.

"Other than a voice recorder, there is no other record of what went on in that cockpit," DelBuono said. "This might be a tipping point for video in the cockpit, an issue pilots have been fighting for years due to lack of privacy."

Although this incident could affect customers’ trust in other airlines, DelBuono noted that other companies should avoid proactively communicating about their own safety standards and screening procedures in light of the Germanwings incident.

"That would be seen as defensive," DelBuono said. "If I was advising an airline I would ask: Why would you even bring that up?"

Charles added it is likely, however, that passengers will be asking more questions in the future before choosing an airline.

"They will want reassurances that the best processes are in place to ensure they have a safe journey from A to B," he said.

Since the crash, two low-cost European carriers – easyJet and Norwegian Air Shuttle – have implemented the cockpit "rule of two" into their safety procedures.

Although Spohr said he has "full confidence" in Lufthansa’s training and pilot screening procedures, despite the disaster, he added that the procedures would be reviewed.

Observing Spohr’s defensive stance on the airline’s procedures, Charles said it might have been unwise to open the CEO up to a Q&A.

"It might have been better for him to make a statement and not do a Q&A until more information becomes available," said Charles. "Without answers to questions, you come across as defensive."

Burson-Marsteller is assisting Lufthansa discount carrier Germanwings with its crisis communications response on this matter.

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