After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, one of the “quick fixes” to identified air security weaknesses was the impenetrable cockpit door.  All commercial airplanes around the world were fitted with bulletproof reinforced flight deck doors, with the theory being that preventing access to that area would be a last line of defense in protecting a flight in progress.  In theory it was a good, common sense solution to a major weakness in airline security.

Of course, security experts didn’t account for other potential factors. One major change is 9/11 altered the behavior of passengers on these flights. They now are proven to be willing to get involved in the defense of their plane. There have been numerous incidents where passengers subdued, and in one case killed, persons trying to gain access to the cockpit. Another was an incident where pilots accidentally locked themselves out of their cockpit. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the plan, however, was that the entire “fortress door” concept hinges on the assumption that the pilots are mentally stable. 

As we now know from the tragic GermanWings flight last week, that is not always the case. Investigators learned within just days of the crash that the pilot left the cockpit, and the co-pilot locked him out and put the plane in a rapid descent, taking himself and 149 other souls to a quick and unexpected death. Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened. There have been 4 commercial crashes attributed to “pilot assisted suicide” since 1982. Additionally, last years disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370, carrying 289 people, is strongly suspected to be in this category. All of these flights were on foreign carriers. 

It would be more difficult to perform such a heinous act on a US based carrier. FAA requirements are that two people must be on the flight deck at all times. I’ve watched this dance on numerous flights, most of them on Southwest, my preferred airline. A flight attendant will stand at the entrance to the forward galley, her 128 pound body presumably there to block the onslaught of terrorists who know exactly when the pilot has to tinkle. A quick call is made to the cockpit, the door opens and the flight officer steps out. Another flight attendant quickly steps inside and the door closes immediately. All is secure. The US based pilot may doody on duty in relative peace, knowing that his co-worker can’t take the plane down, at least not without a fight. 

Of course, the fact that pilots may now carry firearms, a move that I support, could easily alter that scenario. 

What this senseless tragedy really reinforces is that employers whose services make them responsible for their customers well being must be vigilant when employing those directly providing that service. The GermanWings co-pilot was under psychiatric care, and suffered from depression. In hindsight that is something that probably needed to be considered. It is critical that employers learn from the tragedies that befall them.

That may be the true lesson of this incident. Even though the specter of a mentally ill pilot murdering 149 innocent people is truly disturbing, perhaps as nauseating is the reaction of the Lufthansa CEO, which is the parent company to GermanWings. When questioned about the sole cockpit occupant procedure, he blatantly stated “I don’t see any need to change our procedures at this very point”.  

Perhaps he is too close to the situation. I can see 149 reasons, and I’m way over here.

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