German airline group BDL, which includes Lufthansa and Germanwings, announced this weekend its plans to do away with the policy of keeping no fewer than two people in the cockpit at all times. The policy, which has been in practice at many airlines for years now, was adopted by the carriers after a suicidal pilot locked out his captain during a restroom break and intentionally crashed the plane, killing all onboard.
The mindset behind this change of policy is that opening the cockpit door more times than necessary allows would-be hijackers more “frequent and predictable” opportunities to enter the flight deck and take over. The likelihood of a pilot opting to commit an act like Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz did in 2015 is extremely rare – but it could happen. And we do need to be on our toes regarding potential terrorist acts, which are also thankful very rare in-flight. But does this policy change really do more to safeguard air travel?
I brought up this about-face by the German airlines to several pilots I knew as soon as I read about it, and all of them immediately said that they felt uneasy about the change. They, like myself, felt like the amount of time spent allowing a flight attendant in to replace a pilot was so negligible that the benefits outweighed the risks. But some other pilots felt differently, claiming that there was much more unnecessary time now spent with the cockpit door open than there was prior to the implementation of the rule. One author also brought up a valid point – that a malevolent flight attendant could also possibly attempt to incapacitate a pilot during a bathroom break and take over the controls. Perhaps, he feels, safety doesn’t lie in numbers.
The chances of any of this happening again are so remote that it seems barely worth mentioning, but it of course requires careful consideration. However, an issue that does happen a little more frequently, and that I fear may be overlooked here, is that medical issues can strike, incapacitating a pilot in-flight. Just last month an American Airlines pilot died at the controls as the captain landed the plane, and it was only four months prior that a KLM pilot also suffered a cardiac arrest but was thankfully resuscitated. With a flight attendant in the cockpit, emergencies like these could be dealt with immediately rather than the clock ticking down until the co-pilot has finished stretching and using the lavatory.
It’s completely impossible to prepare for all potential scenarios, and history has unfortunately proven them all possible, although thankfully infrequent. But it seems like the short amount of time a pilot takes to swap places with a flight attendant is not enough to warrant scrapping the policy putting two sets of eyes up front. Prioritizing what awful scenario to prepare for over others is, especially in this case, incredibly difficult. We are all anxious to glean as many lessons as we can from the frightening events of recent decades, but this change feels hasty. We can’t expect to prepare for everything, but we ought to take extra precautions where we can afford to.