Anyone who read the Independent on Wednesday may well have had the impression that German pilots were en masse rebelling against their government’s deportation policies for Afghan asylum seekers.
The newspaper originally ran the story under the headline “Pilots ground 222 flights after refusing to deport asylum seekers” before updating the headline to “Pilots stop 222 asylum seekers being deported from Germany by refusing to fly”.
While the number of 222 is itself correct it comes from a parliamentary question posed by Die Linke in November - there is no evidence that pilots refused to fly.
On November 22nd Die Linke asked the government the following question: “How many attempted deportations had to be cancelled between January 1st and September 30th 2017 because the airlines or pilots refused to transport the person set to be deported?”
The government’s answer stated that a total of 222 deportations failed because the airlines refused to take the person on board.
In other words, during the first nine months of the year pilots refused to allow 222 people to board their planes. There is nothing in the government's reply which suggests the pilots refused to fly or that the planes did not take off.
One pilot who spoke anonymously to broadcaster RBB on Wednesday explained that the incidents were related to the safety of other passengers and had nothing to do with concerns about the safety of the deportee when they arrive back in their home country.
Pilots are obliged by paragraph 12 of the air security law to ensure safety on board their flight. Therefore, before flights on which deportees are scheduled to fly, the air crew receive a list containing these people's names.
Pilots meet the deportees in person before boarding and ask whether they want to fly. If a deportee says "no" and seems to be under pressure, Lufthansa pilots generally refuse to take them, the pilot explained.
“We need to assure that someone doesn’t lose control during a flight. We need to protect our passengers from such a circumstance,” she said.
On the other hand, German residency law dictates that airlines are legally obliged to take all rejected asylum seekers who the government wishes to deport. Pilots who refuse purely on moral grounds would then likely face legal consequences.
“I don’t know of any case in which a pilot refused to take a passenger on moral concerns,” a spokesperson for Lufthansa told RBB. “We are legally obliged to take the passengers - they have valid tickets."
In fact pilots refusing to let people being deported onto their planes rarely happens. In the same time period that 222 deportees were refused by airlines, 16,700 people were deported through German airports.