A proposal for ensuring access to the cockpit in an emergency

Airplane cockpit door security

The tragedy of Germanwings flight 4U 9525 is that a security measure designed to protect the passengers was used against them, to bar the pilot from the cockpit and prevent him wresting control of the plane from the co-pilot.

Many solutions have been mooted to this problem, including putting three pilots on the flight deck to ensure that there are always a minimum of two behind the locked door at any time. The other suggestion I have read a few times online is to enable ground controllers to take control of an aircraft remotely, in the same way that the US military controls drone aircraft.

However, both of these solutions would be expensive and impractical.

Another solution is to follow the American procedure which requires that a member of the cabin crew swaps places with the pilot when he steps out to use the toilet, thus ensuring there are always two people on the flight deck. I think it would be sensible for European airlines to adopt this rule (as apparently the Finnish have done today) but it doesn’t entirely solve the problem as it doesn’t deal with the scenario in which the remaining pilot attacks and disables the crew member, as in the case of a male pilot who overpowers a female member of crew.

I would like to suggest a simpler means to ensure that in an emergency, a legitimate member of crew could not be locked out of the flight deck while ensuring safe and secure operation of the airplane under normal operating conditions.

Super-user access code

In the case of the Airbus A320 cockpit doors, there is a means to enable someone on the outside to gain access by the use of a pin code in the event that the pilot inside has been incapacitated.

This is outlined in this video from Airbus.

However, it appears that in the case of Germanwings, the co-pilot used the override switch to prevent the pilot from gaining access.

A 16-digit code which would bypass the internal controller would ensure that in an emergency, someone in the cockpit could not deny access to authorised personnel. If the pilot had been in possession of a master code, he could have overridden the co-pilot and gained access to the flight deck.

However, you wouldn’t want to have the master code on board the plane or in the possession of a member of the crew who might be forced by hijackers to divulge it.

This would mean that the master code would have to be held securely by ground controllers who would transmit the code to the airplane in the event of an emergency.

Currently, it is not possible on most airlines for the cabin crew to communicate directly with anyone outside the airplane – it has always been assumed that the pilots, in the security of the cockpit, would handle any necessary communications.

If emergency communications gear were installed in the galley, with crew able to communicate with ground controllers in an emergency, they could have the master code sent to them that would enable emergency access to the cockpit.

Of course, protocols would have to be put in place for the transmission of the master code to keep it secure and to prevent ground control from being tricked into sending it to the wrong people, but I’m sure this could be resolved with further consideration and discussion.

Had this procedure been in place aboard Germanwings, the pilot would have had several minutes in which to contact the airline’s ground control team, convey the details of emergency, and get the master code that would have enabled him to re-enter the cockpit.

I don’t expect that this system would have to be used very often, but there have been a few documented instances of pilot suicide which in my view makes the idea worthy of consideration.

As former Jetblue airline CEO and founder David Neeleman said, “Perhaps there needs to be way to get back in that door. But nobody ever thought about having to protect the passengers from the pilots.”

We welcome any discussion on this point either by email or in the discussion forum below.

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