Security blunders

The awful events in the Alps this week, with a plane being, it would seem, deliberately flown into the ground by its co-pilot is of course very shocking. However, it is also unfortunately one of a number of consequences of the post 9/11 paranoia about aircraft security.

Part of the problem is that many in the anti-terrorism business aren’t engineers or technical people (and hence can be easily conned into buying expensive kit that doesn’t work), they see things in absolutes (like siths!), that a plane with these measures is 100% unsecure and 100% safe with them. Well, no! In the real world we are often confronted with trade off’s between one risk and another. Putting in a heavy reinforced cockpit door might protect against one kind of threat, such as a terrorist trying to take over the plane, but it actually creates further risks, as there are times when the rest of the crew (or passengers) need to be able to access the cockpit.

Obviously a suicidal pilot is one concern, as events this week have shown. But the shocking thing is this wasn’t the first time this happened. In a very similar incident occurred in 2013, one of the aircrew locking his colleague out of the cockpit and crashing the plane. Yet nothing was done, as the Jack Bauer’s of the world decided to ignore this embarrassment.

Pilot suicide is, fortunately, a fairly rare event. But there are certainly occasional cases of it. Another notable case in recent years being Egypt Air flight 990 back in 1999. In another noteworthy incident about a year ago, an Ethiopian Air co-pilot managed to hijack his plane, when the captain was out of the cockpit and flew it all the way to Switzerland to try and claim asylum (the plane landed without a hitch, all passengers safe).

And least we forget there is still the mystery of MH370. Now while I’d still urge against jumping to conclusions before all the facts are in, the evidence is starting to point to the conclusion that someone was actively at the controls of the plane, until it reached the Indian ocean, if not right up until its crashed. Its not inconceivable that this could be because one or other of the flight crew hijacked the plane, perhaps while the other was out of the cabin. So this is a threat that should have been anticipated and lives were unnecessarily put at risk by the security services as a result.

And Furthermore, its not just pilots going postal that’s the problem, there’s other risks to consider, for example if one of the pilots is taken ill or has a seizure at the controls. This does occasionally happen, for example the infamous case of BEA 548 in the 1970’s (crashed on take off likely due one of the pilots having a heart attack).

Indeed my first thought when I heard the initial reports was that this is what had happened to the German wings plane – one or other of the pilots left the cockpit, his colleague had some sort of seizure, slumped over the control column, sending the plane into a dive while his colleague in his haste got the door entry code wrong and accidentally locked himself out.

In another incident a BA pilot was sucked out of the cockpit when a window failed, leaving him stuck in the window frame. Quick intervention by a flight attendant prevented the pilot being completely sucked out of the plane, while the co-pilot preformed an emergency landing. In another incident (in 1981) a Lear jet co-pilot in the US was killed by a Swan which struck the aircraft and penetrated the cabin, with a similar incident involving a vulture occurring in Pakistan back in the 60’s. In both cases their colleague was injured and intervention from the cabin crew was needed to assist (both occurred prior to the introduction of new security rules), thus allowing an emergency landing. So there are many reasons why access to the cockpit is necessary.

Similarly there is the pantomime we’re expected to go through at check in with all those checks and the smut machines…which don’t actually work (wonderful clip from German TV about this here). It would be funny, if I wasn’t reminded of the large amounts of money wasted on these measures and all that expensive hardware.

Again, some will say better safe than sorry, but its never that simple. Inevitably you’re faced with a trade off between the very small risk of terrorism and the unfortunate fact that there is a strong link between delays to flights (and excessive security measures have led to flight delays) and things going wrong, be it baggage being lost or planes crashing. A number of air accidents have in part being caused by crew in a hurry (due to a delays) missing things that were important and an accident resulting.

For example, Air Florida flight 90 (delayed by bad weather, in their haste pilots failed to set de-icing systems to on), Turkish Airlines fight 981 (delayed by industrial action, an already faulty cargo door incorrectly closed by a baggage handler (delays meant nobody else was available) who wasn’t suitable qualified or trained), or the big daddy of them all the 1977 Tenerife disaster (worst ever accident in aviation history, collision between two jumbos on a runway, due to both being diverted from La Palma due to a security threat, accident the fault of KLM pilot being in a hurry and taking off without proper clearance).

So the fact is that tight security, while it guards against one risk, it opens up a number of other risks. Given the fact that there have been few if any hijackings since 9/11...other than those orchestrated by the pilots thanks to these measures, I’d argue there is a need to perhaps review some of these procedures, both on the plane and on the ground.

So for example, I’d move any control of the cabin door away from the aircraft controls and certainly ensure at least two people in the cabin at all times. As well as providing means to guarantee the cabin staff can always access the cockpit. Perhaps putting a third pilot in the cockpit would help, as it was always handy back in the days of the flight engineer to have that third set of eyes up there, especially when one of the crew needed to leave the cockpit. I’d also question whether these airport body scanners represent value for money.

Furthermore, as the father of one victim pointed out, there is a need to cut pilots some slack. Pilots these days are under huge pressure, often working long hours with little pay and facing long commutes and long waits between shifts, with some so hard up they sleep in crew lounges rather than getting a room for the night. This is a particular issue for junior pilots, who are often pretty much tied to their employer and treated almost like bonded labour. This has caused accidents by itself and near misses (as in pilots asleep at the controls…and I mean both of them!).

Given these pressures, its a wonder this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. So rather than putting some air marshal with a gun in the seat behind the crew (presumably the Tea Party solution, guns are the solution to all problems, right?), I’d pay them better, give them shorter working hours and perhaps a rule that their shift starts the minute they leave the house and get home again (or to a hotel room, paid for by the airline of course), rather than when they sit down in the cockpit.

Yes this might mean you’re Ryanair flight to Malaga gets a little more pricey, but its a price worth paying if you want two sane, alert and happy people up the front of the plane.

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