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GermanWings co-pilot ‘unfit to work’ on day of crash

The Germanwings co-pilot believed to have deliberately steered a plane into the French Alps had a note from his doctor certifying him unfit to work on the day of the crash that he never passed on to his employer.

The note was among torn-up medical documents found during police searches of Andreas Lubitz’s Dusseldorf apartment and his parents’ house about 87 miles away, the prosecutors office leading the German probe said Friday.

Investigators are increasingly focusing on the 27-year-old’s health in trying to understand why he appears to have intentionally driven Germanwings Flight 9525 into a French mountainside on Tuesday, killing himself and 149 passengers and crew. A person close to the probe said Friday that he suffered from an unspecified mental illness.

“Witness questioning on the matter and analysis of medical records will still take a few days,” said Ralf Herrenbrueck, spokesman for the Düsseldorf prosecutors, in a statement. “As soon as we have reliable findings, we will further inform relatives and the public.”

Germanwings said it never received Lubitz’s sick note, a statement backed by the prosecutors’ initial findings. No suicide letter was found in the Thursday searches of the two residences looking for clues as to why Lubitz would lock the captain out of the cockpit and then crash the plane.

Carsten Spohr, chief executive officer of Germanwings parent Deutsche Lufthansa AG, is facing a career-defining test with the crash as he tries to rebuild trust among customers, deal with labor unrest over cost cuts and review safety procedures. The airline announced plans Friday to require two crew members in the cockpit at all times during flight.

Complicating matters for Spohr is that the crash came at Germanwings, the low-cost unit around which he’s seeking to rebuild Lufthansa’s short-haul network. Without that switch, the company is likely to continue losing ground to discount rivals such as Ryanair and EasyJet at a time when travelers may be reconsidering their loyalties to a carrier that had pitched its safety record as a selling point.

Spohr is also facing possible financial claims from the families of victims, who will be able to seek unlimited recoveries if Lubitz did deliberately crash the plane, lawyers said. Because the flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf was international, it’s governed by an accord that automatically entitles victims’ families to about $139,000.

“That does not limit a person’s recovery,” said Kevin P. Durkin, an air crash liability attorney with Chicago’s Clifford Law Offices, in a phone interview on Thursday.

Should a claimant seek more, the burden is on Germanwings to prove that some entity other than the airline was the only cause of the crash, he said. Still, financial rewards in European cases in general are lower than in the U.S., where punitive damages are often available. Lawyers said Lufthansa’s insurance would likely end up covering any payouts.

In France, investigators are trying to find the onboard data recorder to help confirm their suspicion that Lubitz steered the jet into a mountain. The findings from the voice recorder on the Airbus A320 suggest that the crash was deliberate rather than due to a technical fault. Recovering the data unit, the second half of the airliner’s so-called black boxes, is important because it tracks the changes made by the crew to the controls.

While the search for evidence goes on, the grim task of recovering remains continues. French police said Friday that no bodies have been found intact and that parts have been collected from the crash site for identification at a laboratory near Paris.

The investigation in Germany into Lubitz led Friday to Düsseldorf University Hospital, where he had been for diagnostic medical tests over the last two months. The hospital denied a German media report that he was treated at the hospital for depression and said it was turning his medical files over to prosecutors.

Lubitz’s flying license had a code on it that meant he needed special medical checks, Bild Zeitung reported. The Federal Office of Civil Aviation, which keeps the country’s register of licensed pilots, said that it had also handed relevant files on Lubitz to investigators and couldn’t provide details about those documents.

Lubitz, who started his pilot training in 2008, took leave for “several months” at one point, Spohr said Thursday, declining to elaborate. All pilots are routinely reassessed and Lubitz was deemed fit to fly, the CEO said. The co-pilot had logged 630 flight hours.

Lubitz studied at Lufthansa’s flight instruction school in Bremen, which trains about 200 pilots a year. Students complete a major part of their practical training in the Arizona desert at a facility that “offers outstanding flying and weather conditions,” according to Lufthansa’s website.

Before accepting someone to its flight school, the airline conducts a two-day test that includes mathematics, physics, memory and medical checks. Those passing the first round are invited back for another two days of assessments during which psychologists do role plays with applicants to see how they perform under stress situations, according to past participants.

“There is a very heavy screening process,” said John Cox, a former U.S. airline pilot who is president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, of Lufthansa’s pilot training. “I’m going to guess that only 10 percent of the original applicants get through.”