By the end of the year, airlines flying in Europe may be required to have two people in the cockpit at all times. But does a cabin crew door attendant lessen the chances of another Germanwings-type pilot suicide? Or might the extra procedure introduce new security risks? Rick Adams looks at the debate.

Some would argue that, with current technology, we don’t need a human in the aircraft cockpit. Auto-takeoff, auto-pilot, auto-land. Increasing precision of air traffic management through satellite-based navigation systems.

So if we may not need one pilot, why do we need two humans in the cockpit constantly? The answer to both may be the same – to assuage passenger fears about something going horribly wrong.

Those fears spiked a year ago March when a Germanwings first office allegedly deliberately nose-dived Flight 9525 into the French Alps a few miles northwest of Lyon after his captain had exited the cockpit to use a passenger cabin toilet.

Less than a week after the Germanwings tragedy, and months before the French Le Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses (BEA) pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation civile investigation would be complete, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced that it was recommending requiring two warm bodies to be in the cockpit throughout the flight. EASA Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) No. 2015-04 stated: “… operators are recommended to implement procedures requiring at least two persons authorised in accordance with CAT.GEN.MPA.135 of Regulation (EC) No. 965/2012 (Air OPS rules) to be in the cockpit at all times, or other equivalent mitigating measures to address risks identified by the operator’s revised assessment.”

Airlines and charter operators in Europe immediately began adopting the so-called “four-eye-rule” or “minimum occupancy” procedure: easyJet, Monarch Airlines, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Thomas Cook, Virgin, and others. Thomas Hesthammer, Norwegian’s Flight Operations Director, said, “We have been discussing this for a long time but this development has accelerated things.”

Aer Lingus and Finnair had opted for the two-person procedure well before the Germanwings tragedy.

Non-European carriers such as Emirates and Air New Zealand got quickly onboard. Canada’s WestJet, Air Transat, and Air Canada implemented the two-person cockpit rule, as ordered by then-federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

United Airlines quietly dropped a policy allowing a single pilot to remain in the cockpit on some of its Boeing aircraft types, and now require two crew on the flight deck continuously.

In the United States, since 2002, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has advised that “normal procedure for opening flight crew compartment doors” is that “when one flight crewmember leaves the flight deck … a flight attendant or other designated person must lock the door and remain on the flight deck.” The FAA also states: “Flight crew and flight attendant training programs should include these procedures, including crewmember duties and responsibilities, crew coordination, and emergency situation training modules.”

Germanwings parent company Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, said he did not see a need for additional regulation. “Most airlines around the world follow the same procedures as Lufthansa that, in flight phases with low workload, the pilot can leave the cockpit – especially for physical need – and then he returns to the cockpit as fast as he can. That's a global thing, most accepted procedure, which we have used at Lufthansa for many, many years,” Spohr said. “We should not put the whole system at stake just because of this terrible single accident.”

But within days, Lufthansa and subsidiaries including Air Berlin and Swissair were implementing the two-person scheme. An airline statement said: “In coordination with the Luftfahrtbundesamt (the Germany civil aviation authority), the other German airlines and the German aviation industry association (Bundesverband der deutschen Luftverkehrswirtschaft), the airlines of the Lufthansa Group are to adopt a new cockpit occupancy procedure as a precautionary measure.”

In July 2015, a task force requested by European Union (EU) Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc and led by EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky published its report on Germanwings 9525. Their No. 1 recommendation was, “The principle of 'two persons in the cockpit at all time' should be maintained.”

Hasty Response? Not everyone agrees with EASA’s rapid reaction recommendation.

The Syndicat National des Pilotes de Ligne (SNPL), Air France’s main pilots union, rejected the concept, calling it hasty, suggesting EASA wait for the end of the investigation into the Germanwings circumstances. “Recommended actions were not sufficiently evaluated both operationally and in terms of threats and risks,” SNPL said.

This past February, the European Cockpit Association (ECA), representing nearly 40,000 pilots across the Continent, made a similar argument in a position paper: “These measures were not the result of a structured approach to flight safety and security which must have a thorough threat and risk assessment as its foundation.”

Captain Otjan de Bruijn, ECA’s Professional Affairs Director and a Boeing 777 pilot for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (Air France’s sister company), told CAT, “There was a lot of opposition last year when EASA thought up this rule only three days after the crash of the Germanwings airplane, which was very hasty. None of the stakeholders, pilots or airlines, were happy with that decision.”

The ECA position paper summarised: “Some airlines started implementing this recommendation immediately but did not carry out the necessary threat and risk assessment, nor did they provide necessary specific training. Other airlines applied it to passenger flights only … The remaining airlines chose not to follow the recommendation at all, being confident that their own threat and risk assessment showed that the recommendation had the potential to actually reduce the security of the operation. This demonstrates that there was and is no consensus on the course of action.”

The opposition apparently triggered EASA to seek public comment. They offered an online survey at the end of January 2016, “seeking feedback from operators, pilots and cabin crew, authorities and other interested parties, to assess the effectiveness of the ‘2-person-in-the-cockpit’ recommendation.” According to the ECA’s Capt. de Bruijn, EASA received “tens of thousands of replies from individual pilots, airline pilot associations, and also from airlines.” Release of the survey results was originally expected in April, but now it appears EASA will issue them in mid-June at the agency’s Action Plan conference in Cologne, Germany.

If they persist with the two-person cockpit requirement, the proposed regulatory change must be presented to the European Commission, which would then submit it to member states, airline companies, and the European Parliament. This puts the requirement implementation somewhere toward the end of the year.

Risk Trade-Off The pilot unions’ primary objection to the cockpit rule is that it may, in fact, increase risk. Capt. de Bruijn noted, “The presence in the cockpit of a person without any operational knowledge will not improve safety or security. It may even create new operational and safety concerns. They may interpret certain things that are happening on the flight deck in the wrong way – for example, a Terrain Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) resolution advisory, in which you have to evade other traffic, or an emergency descent due to the oxygen degrading, and may think that the pilot is doing something intentionally wrong.”

Veteran flight attendant Anna Mellberg Karlsson, Chief Cabin Safety Inspector for Swedish charter Novair, said at times the presence of a flight attendant in the cockpit can be a distraction. “When the pilot who is flying is alone, they are more concentrated and focused. But when the cabin crew member comes in, they tend to turn around and chat a bit. The risk is higher that they miss a radio call or something else that is going on.”

Karlsson said the two-person cockpit rule has been misinterpreted by the media as “I need to try to take over the aircraft if somebody tries to fly into a mountain. But we don’t have that much knowledge of flying and the controls.”

The BEA’s final report on the Germanwings crash, issued in March, stated that a person “physically present next to a pilot who might want to commit suicide … could contribute to breaking the cognitive constriction of the suicidal person, and therefore could prevent the suicide. However … even with two persons in the cockpit (i.e. two pilots), a suicide remains possible. This “2-person in the cockpit” rule cannot fully mitigate the risk of suicide, although it is likely to make it more difficult.”

Karlsson said flight attendants are not allowed to sit in the absent pilot’s seat, lest they inadvertently bump a button or knob. They are required to stand and hold onto a bar, which in itself poses a safety risk if the aircraft hits turbulence. “Our purpose is to be able to let the other pilot back in,” Karlsson told CAT. “Or get assistance from another cabin crew member if the pilot is ill.”

She added, “Unfortunately this was implemented very fast, in a day. Nobody wanted to be seen as the airline who didn’t use it, who wasn’t safe. But there was no significant change in the training regimes.”

A poster on the popular pilot website, pprune.com, with the username “Superpilot,” said the two-person rule “introduces more predictability as to when a door is going to open; if a cabin crew member has gone into the flight deck, rest assured a pilot is going to come out within 30 seconds and vice versa.” To a would-be terrorist, such predictability represents opportunity to strike.

Former Managing Director of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Peter Goelz said following the 9-11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, aviation security working groups “talked extensively about whether we should give a random member of the flight crew an ability to enter the cockpit. But they decided from a security standpoint you couldn't guarantee that outsiders wouldn't learn that.”

Capt. de Bruijn added, “Due to the fact that you have to get somebody out and somebody in when the pilot has to go to the bathroom, it even doubles the time the cockpit door is opened; that degrades security.”

Many airlines close a curtain between the cockpit door area and the passenger cabin or position a beverage cart in the aisle as a blockade. But Superpilot says his airline “considers it too impractical.” Some air carrier configurations, El Al for example, incorporate a toilet within the secure part of the cockpit.

Precluding the Rare Event “What happened in the Germanwings incident is a ‘black swan’ incident,” said ECA’s de Bruijn. “Even if you implement the two person in the cockpit rule it would still not be able to be a proper defence mechanism against that happening again.”

Qantas Capt. Richard de Crespigny, who encountered his own black swan event with the catastrophic multi-engine failure of flight QF32 in 2010, asked via Twitter, “Is guarding against a six-times-in-the-history-of-aviation risk the one to be moving forwards?”

The ECA is especially concerned that the two-person rule, “inferring that flight crews require monitoring when they are on their own in the flight deck,” can create a backlash effect of “reducing passenger confidence in the pilots.”

It may be just as likely that the cabin crew member who is authorised to enter the flight deck is dealing with his or her own emotional or mental issues. In May, a British Airways flight attendant attempted to commit suicide on a Los Angeles-to-London flight; the flight diverted to Iceland, where the man was taken to hospital.

Capt. de Bruijn cautioned, “The security checks for getting into an airline as an employee are much different for pilots than for cabin crew members at most airlines. There are different background checks regarding these employees and you might miss something due to the lower level of background checks in comparison with the pilot.”

The BEA report acknowledged that “this rule may introduce new security risks by allowing an additional person inside the flight deck.”

ECA’s de Bruijn said airlines which have implemented the two-cockpit rule have done so as a “temporary measure” and pilots and cabin crew have not received any additional applicable training. “I think the airlines think this recommendation was put forward as a way to reassure the public and the passengers, which of course is important, and that it would disappear in time. That’s probably the reason why they haven’t put a very big effort and time and money into this additional training.”

A pprune poster known as Denti said, “Here in Germany it was impossible not to implement it. Damn the risk assessment, which turned out to be not in favour of that measure at all. Simply a bow to public pressure and be done with it.”