Early last week, Germanwings Flight 9525 departed Barcelona’s El Prat airport for a seemingly routine return flight to Dusseldorf. However, shortly after reaching its cruising altitude, the aircraft began an unauthorized and rapid descent. French air traffic controllers tried to establish radio contact with the airplane but received no reply from the cockpit. Minutes later, Flight 9525 slammed into the foothills of the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. Investigators now believe 28-year old co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane, after locking his captain out of the cockpit.

Regulatory agencies are responding by requiring that at least two crew members be present in the cockpit at all times. Canada’s Transport Minister stated, “It doesn’t matter who (the two) are going to be. It could be a flight attendant, it could be a customer service person, but they have to be members of the cabin crew.” But it doesn’t stop there. Several analysts are now calling for a three-crew cockpit. By one account, “we have to start planning for the rogue pilot element because it's a clear and present danger and the traveling public wants that certainty."

An assurance of safety is both understandable and necessary. Yet delivering this assurance by increasing human presence on the flight deck is hardly a sure bet. The effectiveness of such measures depends on perfect human behavior. A flight attendant must notice the pilot has changed the auto-control, placing the aircraft into a dangerous descent. A customer service representative must recognize the aircraft’s course has been significantly altered from what was originally planned. These dependencies, while vital to safety, are neither scientifically nor practically realistic. Humans make mistakes; mistakes that by some accounts are responsible for nearly 80% of aviation accidents.

Could the solution involve removing the human element altogether?

Efforts to fully automate airplanes have long existed. A decade ago, Honeywell demonstrated the feasibility of a system that would seamlessly take control of an aircraft in the event of crew incapacitation. More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the development of an autopilot that handles takeoffs, landings and emergencies with minimal human involvement. However, pilot unions fearful of job losses and insurance companies hesitant to accept the risk, have historically opposed such technologies. Automation has been an even tougher sell with the flying public. A 2010 survey by Purdue University found that over 85% of respondents would not fly aboard a pilotless airplane. 77% stated they would acquiesce only in cases where a human pilot was on board to actively monitor aircraft systems. Despite evidence to the contrary, travellers clearly believe that a human crew is vital to their personal safety.

Following last week’s crash, the CEO of Germanwings parent company Lufthansa reiterated that, irrespective of all the sophisticated safety devices present, “you can never exclude such an individual event,” later adding, “no system in the world could manage to do that." Perhaps not, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying.