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Cockpit doors: No silver bullet solution

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Post 9/11, the idea was to have the flight deck highjack-proof at all times.

There is still much more to learn about Germanwings flight 4U9525, but, according to French officials, information from the cockpit voice recorder indicates the co-pilot intentionally descended the Airbus A320 into the French Alps and refused to allow the flight’s captain back into the locked cockpit. The apparent scenario that led to this tragic crash demonstrates that there is almost never a one-size-fits-all silver bullet solution in aviation. 

After 9/11, cockpit doors were made incredibly strong and were mandated to be locked—at all times—from the inside. While meant to prevent hijackers from entering cockpits, it unfortunately opened up the possibility for the frightening scenario that may have played out aboard the A320 over the French Alps: The person sabotaging the aircraft is one of the pilots and he is alone in the cockpit when the other pilot leaves temporarily. The lone pilot in the cockpit can override a touchpad installed on many commercial aircraft that is meant to allow the pilot who left temporarily to re-enter the cockpit. Again, the idea is to have the flight deck highjack-proof at all times by keeping a super-strong door always locked from the inside.

In the US, many airlines’ standard operating procedure is for a flight attendant to enter the cockpit when one of the pilots leaves temporarily. This would help if the remaining pilot were to, say, pass out, but what if the remaining pilot is mal-intentioned and incapacitates the flight attendant?

In a Jan. 11, 2002 FAA press release, the agency lays out new cockpit door rules. One is: “The door will be designed to prevent passengers from opening it without the pilot’s permission. An internal locking device will be designed so that it can only be unlocked from inside the cockpit.”

I’m not saying strengthened cockpit doors and revamped flight deck entry protocols weren’t a good idea after 9/11. (I remember a flight as a child in the late 1970s or early 80s when my father and I walked up to the cockpit mid-flight and were invited in by the pilots, who happily showed a wide-eyed little boy the wonders of a flight deck.) But solving one problem created another potential problem.

[UPDATE NOTE: The FAA-approved standard operating procedure for US airlines is to have a flight attendant or a relief pilot enter the cockpit when a pilot temporarily leaves the flight deck. Lufthansa did not have this policy in place, but the German government is reportedly mandating that German airlines have two crew members in the cockpit at all times going forward. Airlines around the world, including EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Air Canada and Air Transat, have announced changes to their cockpit procedures in the aftermath of the Germanwings crash.]

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