Learning from Germanwings

On the 24th of March, the pilot of Germanwings flight 4U9525 into a field, killing everyone on board, including himself. This is a human tragedy — beyond what many of us will experience in our lifetimes. But it’s also an important object lesson to those of us who live in the world of engineering. Think through the entire realm of airline safety that has been put into place since the terrorist attacks on the 11th of September in 2001.

  • Advanced scanning machines (which are not without their own share of controversy)
  • Increased security inside the airplane, including locked cockpit doors
  • Stricter regulations on liquids carried onto the airplane
  • Removal of electronic items from bags so they can be independently assessed

The list feels almost endless to the person on the receiving end of all these new measures. The pilot, in this case, either bypassed the protection, or used it to his advantage. Advanced scanning machines, liquids restrictions, and laptop inspections can’t prevent someone intent on harming lots of people if they have control of the airplane itself. The locked cockpit door just created a “safe space” in which the co-pilot could work his plan out.

So what’s the point of this from an engineering perspective?

Within the engineering community, we find solutions to problems. Given any particular problem, within the limits of “you get to choose two of three,” we focus on solving problems. We often get so deep in solving problems, though, that we end up treating the very human problems around us as engineering problems to be solved in much the same way.

Taking it to the personal level, I can’t recall the number of times my wife or kids approach me with a problem that I then proceed to solve, resulting in anger and misunderstanding. Not all human problems need to be “solved.” Some just need to be listened to. Beyond the personal level, though, there is another layer of problems for an engineer facing the world.

As the Germanwings pilot demonstrates, people can’t be engineered.

This isn’t just a security thing — although we all know social engineering is still the strongest attack against just about any security system. This problem reaches out broader than just security.

First, people use the stuff you engineer the way they want to, not the way you think they should. This is particularly important in the world of ladder design, but it’s also important in the world of network design, protocol design, application design, etc. Just because you think it should be used “like this,” doesn’t mean everyone is actually going to use it that way.

Second, engineering really isn’t going to change the world. At least not the way you think it is. You can engineer a new solution to the problem of washing clothes and change the world. But no matter how much you try to analyze, nudge, sift, and sort people, they just aren’t engineerable in that way. Engineers get into trouble when we think we can take our problem solving skills from the networking world to the real world and get the results we expect.

In fact, I’m going to be more forceful than this on the second point. Engineers will not only fail to engineer people in order to change the world, it’s actually immoral in some basic sense to do so. For in the process of engineering people, of “solving the people problem,” we’re actually reducing people to the status of objects.

And no matter what you think, whether you agree with someone or not, treating a person as an object, or even a group of people as an object, will always lead to a bad result in the real world.

Perhaps, as engineers, a little humility is in order around this area. We can’t solve every problem in the world, and we certainly can’t solve the “people problem.” We’re never going to be able to stop a pilot from using systems designed to protect them against the people they’re responsible for. We aren’t ever going to be able to treat a person like a computer, examining all the code to see what’s going on in there, and making adjustments to the program so the problem is “fixed.”


  1. Paul Miller on 10 April 2015 at 2:26 am

    We are not, nor will we ever be in control of everything. There are forces outside our control and elements unseen. To understand the world, you must first know what’s in it.