Airlines Changing Cockpit Procedure After Germanwings Crash

Filed Under: Security/TSA

Yesterday I shared my thoughts about the Germanwings tragedy, which is just so tough to come to terms with. It’s one thing to lose family or friends in a “true” accident, but given what we know now, I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for the friends and family of the victims onboard, knowing it was a deliberate act.

The one minor silver lining when it comes to air disasters is that corrective action is almost always quickly taken, so that the same mistake hopefully doesn’t happen again.

One of the things I talked about yesterday was how on US airlines there are always two people in the cockpit:

One thing that I think is interesting to note is how cockpit protocol differs in the US vs. elsewhere. For US airlines, you always have two people in the cockpit. Before a pilot can leave the flight deck, a flight attendant has to enter the cockpit.

I don’t know of anywhere outside the US where this is a procedure. I don’t think that procedure is in place on US airlines because they’re trying to prevent pilots from crashing planes, but it’s probably mainly in the event the pilots are incapacitated, and also to “streamline” the procedure, given the “cart blocking” which is required when pilots have to use the lavatory.


Well, it seems that other airlines are quickly adopting similar policies. In the light of the Germanwings disaster, Air Canada, Westjet, Air Transat, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Lufthansa, airberlin, Easyjet, Monarch Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Thomas Cook have all announced that they will require two people to be in the cockpit at all times.

Ultimately this is probably good news, but I do think it’s worth stepping back here for a second.

Let’s keep in mind that after 9/11 one of the solutions to prevent future terrorist attacks was adding reinforced cockpit doors. They’re a blessing and a curse, because it means that whoever is in the cockpit will stay in the cockpit alone, unless they want anyone else up there.

If it weren’t for reinforced cockpit doors, could the captain have somehow reentered the cockpit on the Germanwings flight? And while we don’t know the details of MH370, based on common theories it seems like the reinforced cockpit door may have also played a part there.

But let’s think about there always being two people in the cockpit. In theory that seems like a good thing, right? I suppose from a psychological standpoint it’s best not to leave people alone. So while it’s one possible solution, I think it also presents another potential problem.

When one pilot leaves the cockpit, the other pilot is typically buckled up. Now you have a flight attendant that stands in the cockpit behind them (or sits down on the jumpseat in the back of the cockpit). Is there a possibility that the flight attendant has bad intentions? They certainly have an “advantage” over the pilot, given that he/she is standing and is behind the pilot. So it’s not inconceivable that the flight attendant could incapacitate the pilot and take control of the aircraft.

And let’s also keep in mind that there’s less training required to become a flight attendant than to become a pilot.

To be clear, I do think having two people in the cockpit at all times is a good idea. Just as I think reinforced cockpit doors are a good idea. Though fundamentally I think if someone is screwed up enough to deliberately take 150 other human lives down with them, having another person around isn’t going to stop them.

I even spoke to someone today that suggested that air marshals (with guns) should be seated in the cockpit rather than in the cabin, which is just preposterous. In general, I think the fewer people that have access to the cockpit, the better.

Bottom line

Again, I’m not suggesting this is a bad idea.

But I do think it’s important to understand that there are crazy people out there, and that there’s never going to be a solution that will prevent crazy people from carrying out horrible acts. Often one solution creates another problem, as we’ve sort of seen with reinforced cockpit doors. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t a net positive, but rather to say that there are upsides and downsides to everything.

At the end of the day we just have to live our lives, accept that we frequently put our lives in others’ hands, and cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I’d be curious to hear what you guys think!

  1. This new rule would not have helped in this situation.

    FAs usually aren’t pilots. It takes 1 second to put the airplane in a state that will lead to a crash and that the FA will not know how to fix.

    Then what? You’ll always be playing catch-up with people who have bad intentions.

  2. It’s always a double edged sword. You solve a problem but you create a new one. With that said, I also believe having two people in the cockpit at all times should be standard operating procedure on all airlines. Possibly introduce yearly psychological testing/assessment to all crew members. It’s a lot of trust and responsibility that we place on those guys and we need to make sure they are up to it.

  3. IFE systems should have a button to eject the pilot from the plane. And if everyone on the plane presses the button, the pilot is ejected! Kinda like the X factor

  4. I don’t think the 2-person rule will help at all.
    If a pilot is determined to crash a commercial jet, he/she will likely always be able to carry this out, so the 2-person rule will not help.
    On the other hand it may cause harm:
    The requirements to becoming a flight attendant are far lower than those to becoming a pilot. Therefore it is safe to assume that – as a result of the 2-person rule – people who have undergone less scrutinizing tests now get access to the cockpit. It will increase the risk of something like this happening again.

  5. Ben, this issue should be resolved this way: there should alway be 2 pilots in the cockpit.
    Airlines should think of an emergency solution for an urgent need of a pilot to go to the toilet, and they should never leave the cockpit on a 2 pilot aircraft.
    I just flew MIA/ DOH with Qatar (777) last week and was seated with my wife on the first row. About an hour before we landed in Doha I went to the galley and saw 2 of their pilots talking, grabbing a bite and socializing with the flight attendants. I even mentioned to my wife that I tought was wrong for 2 pilots to be there while only 1 pilot remained at the cockpit.
    It is all about the value of a human life and being more careful so nobody else has to face this horror again in the future.

  6. I don’t see how having a flight attendant in there would have helped anything. It’s not like they know enough about flying a plane to notice a pilot starting to do something to bring it down, and even if they were to realize, it’s not like they would know how to fix anything already done.

  7. We can figure out how to get a giant metal bird into the air.

    We can figure out how to get reasonably quick email to work 39000 feet above Earth.

    We can figure out how to keep 2 lb. preemies alive.

    We can figure out how to split atoms.

    Some airlines have even figured out how to make a cappuccino Ben will tweet about from the sky.

    But no one can figure out how to put an electronic code on a cockpit door so that the pilot can get back in and a terrorist can’t?

  8. Agreed -FAs likely don’t know how to fly but in this situation they would have been able to unlock the cockpit door so the lead pilot could re-enter.

  9. I don’t think the point of having a flight attendant in this situation would be for the flight attendant to save the plane, but to be able to unlock the door for the other pilot to get back in. Another solution would be to give pilots a code such that they could never be locked out of the cockpit no matter what whoever in there did.

  10. Yes, if someone had intentions to crash the plane, chances are good they might succeed, but this procedure makes it more difficult to do so as the other person in the cockpit will be another line of defense. They will have to kill the other person first before being able to overtake the plane and crash it assuming they are able to physically overwhelm the other person.

    Nothing is 100% preventable, but the current procedure used by foreign carriers make it too easy to carry out such horrible act (cockpit is easily accessible by FAs anyway).

    In the future, I foresee military being able to unilaterally take control of the cockpit remotely or the military being able to disable the cockpit security system from the ground.

    Until then, the 2-person in the cockpit rule will help reduce the possibility of a rogue employee with evil intentions of carrying out his/her act.

  11. Neil S,
    If you had paid attention you would know there is a keypad to access the cockpit but there is an override switch in the cockpit that allows whoever is still inside to prevent the door opening

  12. Lucky,
    Based my experience with Cathay pilots, I know that them and their subsidiary Dragonair have long had a similar policy. I can’t name off the top of my head, but I think there are a few other non-US airlines that also require two people in the flight deck at a given time.
    To your point of the FA in the cockpit, IME, the FA does not sit in the jumpseat, but rather in the empty seat at the controls(and buckled up too). It wouldn’t make any sense to have them sit at the jumpseat because they wouldn’t be able to then do anything if the pilot becomes incapacitated.
    And it’s not just and FA. Only qualified FAs are allowed in the cockpit and usually there is a set FAs to perform the task on a given flight. The person is most likely the purser or the first class FA, so not your everyday new hire working at the back of the bus 😛

  13. *Are* reinforced cockpit doors a net positive? You seem to take that as a given, but as far as I can tell they’ve only created problems. Reinforcing them was a knee-jerk response after 9-11, but maybe that is what should be changed. We can’t prevent every attack and we shouldn’t put everything on lock down due to the tiny possibility of an attack. I may get hit by a car crossing a street, but that doesn’t stop me from crossing streets; there are risks we acknowledge and accept. So we should assess the risk of someone “bad” breaking through the door versus the risk of someone “bad” being inside the cockpit and preventing someone “good” from entering and revise things accordingly. But that’s not what’s happening – it’s just a series of reactions instead of thoughtful assessment of what is most likely and what is least likely. Just like taking our shoes off and compartmentalizing our liquids at “security” checkpoints.

  14. Having nosed around the forum at PPRUNE the last days most of these thing have been discussed already.

    The FA in the cockpit will probably in most cases be the purser, aka somebody that has been with the airline for quite a while. Hopefully not some 20 years old that was just hired.

    The job of the FA in the cockpit would not be second guess the pilot flying, but to let the other pilot into the cockpit again. That said training a FA to correctly read a Attitude indicator aka Artificial Horizon and a Altimeter is a lot easier than learning to fly a plane. If suddenly the pilot put the plane in steep dive from cruising altitude it would show up very fast of these instruments.

    To those who say remote control for flying or the cockpit door is the answer; I would like to remind them of the law of unintended consequences. Sure you could stop thing like the Germanwing crash, but this would bring new dangers in it self. Now somebody could remotely highjack or open a cockpit door since no IT-system is truly bullet proof. Including a remote flying system that a FA can activate by flip a physical switch in the cockpit in case of total incapacitation of the flight crew might be a good idea. Would at least stop those bad Hollywood movies where one the FA or passenger have to land the plane.

    To those how think pilot/crew should have a override code or key that can not be blocked by the flight crew, we are back to a 9/11 scenario. If I was up to bad thing and could get enough people with unarmed combat training on board a flight to hold of the other passengers while I conducted some rubber-hose crypto analysis on said crew members the cockpit would be mine.

    To those who say a pilot that want to crash a plane will be able to do it, I say maybe. Thing is that it’s apparently very difficult to turn a modern aircraft like the Airbus that crashed with fly by wire controls into a lawn dart from cruise altitude, the computers will stop you from taking the plane beyond normal flight. And the computers take a bit of work for one person to disable, especially with a FA in the cockpit to ask what is wrong. Apparently the fastest way to crash a A320 is the flight profile of the Germanwings flight.


    One of the suggestions over on the PPRUNE was to move the secure door further back and include the forward toilet in the cockpit, that way avoiding more people in the cockpit. The 747 cockpit apparently has private toilet already. Not sure how realistic this is on the narrow-bodies flying today, but it will be interesting to see what Boeing and Airbus does when it’s time to design the next generation of narrow bodies after MAX and NEO

  15. @Lisa

    The problem with proving that a reinforced door work or not is how do you account for bad guys that have seen said system and know that they would not make it into the cockpit and decided to do so other act of terror?

    Criminals and thief’s will often go from soft targets, not the reinforced ones. Ocean’s Eleven type scenarios are thing you mostly find in the movies, because of lower risk and higher chance of success when hit a easy target.

    Agree with you mostly on the shoes and liquids front.

  16. Including mental reasons in the lose of license insurance might also be good idea.

    To day apparently pilots who have mental problem will not get a pay out from their insurance even if they are barred from flying.

    That way they would not have to hide the problem from their employer, or risk ending up deep in debt from flight training with no job.

  17. Of another person would have helped here. When the captain knocked at the door that other person could have opened the door. What is it so hard to understand?

  18. @ OberBoberGrober — Right, it would have helped here, but under different circumstances it could have caused more harm than good. Just as on 9/11 reinforced cockpit doors would have helped, while they didn’t in this case.

  19. Finally, someone speaks some sense. No Name is all over it. The whole “bad people will do it regardless” argument is not always applicable. Having an FA in the pilot allows the door to be unlocked. The A320 simply cannot be made a “lawn dart” as No Name puts it. The germanwings copilot crashed the thing in textbook fly by wire fashion. This absolutely was avoidable and anyone saying the typical wishywashyness when these incidents happen are kidsing themaelves. Totally avoidable if European airlines had just used the US policy. Was a disaster waiting to happen.

  20. So the Haters that always hate.. Should have learn for good the US prevention procedures (that they mostly criticize). OF COURSE a FA in the cockpit could have been an important factor to avoid this shit from happening.

  21. If you guys are saying the FAs do a lot less training and is easier, then just get the purser to go in there instead of any FA, besides no FA can ever be certain he/she will be the one called.

  22. Some people who are, or will become, pilots will attempt to act on a suicide/homicide motive. Some such people will not be detected. From this the principle flows that it should be arranged such that no one pilot can easily crash the airplane and kill everyone in it.

    The mere presence of another person (whether armed air Marshall, trained or untrained pilot or flight attendant) will mitigate this possibility by the establishment of mental barriers, and allowing the possibilites of unlocking the door or rescuing the plane in some other way.

    Before locked armored cockpit doors, there were very many hijackings. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that post 9/11 those hijackings would have been replaced by suicide/homicide events involving passengers. The very sharp reduction in hijackings suggests that it is possible to make a positive difference in airline safety; that nihilism is not a valid principle in these circumstances.

  23. So now that we know he had a mental illness, and a doctor’s note saying he wasn’t fit to fly that he hid from the airline, let’s talk about privacy rights and if that note should have been transmitted directly to the airline.

    When does medical privacy get trumped by the need to keep aircraft and passengers out of the hands of people who shouldn’t be flying?

    Check the NY Times home page for details.

  24. @Neil S

    Medical privacy already get trumped under the current system in most countries, problem is that a lot of the doctors are not aware that they are supposed to report pilots or how they should go about doing it.

    This of course assume that he told them that was pilot these days and not a flight attendant.

  25. As I stated yesterday, can a 2nd person in the cockpit prevent this from happening? Absolutely NOT. I’ll use the same example as yesterday.

    FO: Cap, I’m going to take a leak.
    Cap: Sure, see you in a few. Could you grab me a water on your way back in?
    FO: Sure thing.
    FO walks towards back of cockpit, grabs the crash axe and goes to town on the captain.
    FO now has full control of the aircraft.

    There is no 100% way to prevent 100% of the threats or risks out there. It sounds like the airline had psychological testing in-place. Anyone with a brain (which I’d hope would mean a commercial airline pilot) could easily hide their feelings when answering the questions.

    Nothing is 100% safe. Nothing ever will be 100% safe.

  26. At United at least I’ve only seen the purser/intl service manager/lead flight attendant enter the cockpit while one of the pilots comes out. Not just any random member of the flight crew.

  27. I agree that there is no 100% way to prevent 100% of the threats or risks out there. However, the more changes we do to make it safer, will reduce the risk some. Especially like the suggestion to include the forward toilet in the cockpit or have a private toilet on all equipment. If it prevents only one tragedy a year, it will be worth the cost. The airlines can just add another tax to the ticket cost to amortize the expense over the life of the aircraft. They can call it the “PP tax” (pilot potty tax)! Good dialog on your site, Ben.

  28. How about having a security passcode lock so that in the even of an emergency the pilot can re-enter the cockpit in emergency situations, and allowing only pilots to have the passcode. And then changing the code every 3 to 6 months.

  29. Okay, Im a pilot.
    And I dont know why this has not been adopted in these companies before.

    In my Asian company, we have had this rule for a long, long time. And it is NOT because of a potentially crazy pilot. That has been a a scenario we havent thought much of before. It is a group of professionals where this has been an unlikely scenario in an international airline.

    But, in case of a problem with the remaining pilot, we need someone to get the other pilot back immediately. We could think of a medical problem of some sort. The flight attendant cant occupy a pilot seat at any time with the engine running, but they are there to see that the remaining pilot is responding and well.

    How could companies have allowed only one in the cockpit in flight?

    By the way, the cockpit door can be opened from outside by the pilot, but not if the pilot inside deny access at each 1 minute attempt of entering. So you only get locked out if the pilot inside has gone mad, not if he is incapacitated.

    But in a case where a pilot has gone mad, Im not sure if a flight attendant in the cockpit would change anything. She will fetch a coffee if asked, she can be pushed out, or it take a second to put the plane in an unrecoverable upset.
    We need to hire reliable pilots, the way things were before the low cost carriers aggressive change in pilot recruitment. They save money, at least short term, but at what cost for safety?

  30. Many of the knee jerk rejections to 9/11 have proven very expensive and questionable to their making a difference. What really changed for passengers on 9/11 was that no longer would a passenger “sit down and stay kewl” during a hijacking………after 9/11 all passengers immediately had the right and duty to rush a hijacker as “the rules changed on 9/11 and ended hijacking as such (MH380?)”………I deputized my football playing 13 year old soon after 9/11 as he flew to his grandparents home………..with the barricading of the cockpit now it is the flight crew who we have to protect ourselves from……… does appear that is the last place that needs further change to protect us all………….I also hope there is some soul searching on the negotiation teams at LH on both sides of the table as I am in the camp that says “bad karma” in the air pushes/encourages/makes crazy people do crazy things………….

  31. Recently talked to a fem. FA. Her Opinion was to consider her and her colleagues as potentially to sensitive to act right behind the cockpit door when there’s pressure from in of outside. She said she’ll rather break down instead of saving the plane. In. Germany many FA see new cockpit policy with mixed feelings .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *