Airlines and regulators often wait to enact airline safety measures until long after the urgency for such measures becomes apparent. It’s painfully evident in the wake of the March 24 Germanwings tragedy, when Andreas Lubitz, 28, locked his copilot out of the cockpit, disabled the security code, and crashed the plane in the French Alps. The incident highlights the need to rethink how we design airplane cockpits.
Prior to 9/11, at a time when terrorists were blowing themselves up to kill handfuls of innocents at a time, it apparently never occurred to airline safety regulators that terrorists might take advantage of unsecured cockpit doors to take control of airplanes and kill thousands at a time. Even after 9/11, regulations still permit cockpit doors to be opened wide during a flight whenever the pilot needs to use the facility.
After 12 major aircraft catastrophes over the past four decades suspected to have been caused by pilot suicide, the best U.S. airline safety regulators could come up with to address this safety risk was to require that at least “one member” of the aircraft crew, such as a flight attendant, be in the cockpit when one of the pilots left the cockpit to use a facility located outside the cockpit area. The notion that a flight attendant would have sufficient training to know what buttons to push to countermand the levers pulled by a suicidal pilot bent on killing all the passengers is a quaint one, and completely unrealistic—which is perhaps why European regulators never felt the need to enact a similarly useless regulation.
The need for a sealed cockpit in every aircraft is no less critical today than it was in the days after 9/11 when the main perceived safety threat was that of a terrorist rushing from the passenger cabin to invade the cockpit and take control of the aircraft. The current rules, however, don’t really work. After all, the cockpit door is opened from time to time as pilots use the restroom or fetch a snack. Intercom announcements warning passengers not to congregate near the toilet are also equally absurd, since terrorists will be uninhibited by the warnings. Such warnings are reminiscent of the unintentionally humorous instructions given to schoolchildren in the 1950s to “duck and cover” under their desks in the case of nuclear attack.
The undeniable fact is that the only regulation that can effectively protect passengers and aircraft from either a suicidal pilot or a terrorist passenger is one that requires the cockpit to be truly sealed during the entire flight. Within the cockpit area, you’d have a toilet and a small slot for delivering food and drinks. On long-haul flights, pilots would also be provided with a cot within the sealed cockpit area.
Equally necessary is a regulation requiring that airlines videotape the interior of the cockpit. That tape should be included in one of the two black boxes currently required. Without such a regulation, the true cause of a crash may remain in doubt (even in cases where the pilot obviously intended to commit suicide). Pilot concerns over privacy can be addressed through ironclad guarantees that such videos will be made available only after a catastrophe has occurred and the black box found.
Airlines may complain that such redesign of cockpit areas is costly, but it need not be. In the long term, the expansion of the secured cockpit area to include toilets can be mandated as a part of an original aircraft design, and in the short term, small portable toilets of the kind advertised on television for a few hundred dollars would suffice.