Cockpit security arrangements introduced after 9/11 failed to consider the threat from within.

The fatal crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 caused by the suicide of its copilot Andreas Lubitz, can be directly attributed to the cockpit security arrangements introduced after 9/11. These arrangements were designed to prevent unauthorised access to the cockpit but they did not consider the risks posed by the crew in the cockpit, despite evidence from previous crash investigations. This failure resulted in 150 deaths.

This month the French civil aviation safety agency, the BEA, released its final report on the fatal crash of Flight 9525, an Airbus A320, D-AIPZ, which crashed in the French Alps on the 24th March 2015, killing all on board. The cause of the accident was attributed to the Andreas Lubitz’s decision to commit suicide when the pilot left the cockpit, by deliberately flying the aircraft into the ground. Cockpit security arrangements introduced after 9/11 meant that he pilot was unable to re-enter the cockpit and prevent the accident.

The terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 rocked the aviation community. In its aftermath passenger traffic in the United States declined by 6% in 2001 compared to 2000, and declined by a further 1.5% in 2002. The financial effect upon US airlines was massive. Already weakened by the aftermath of the dot com bubble, airline revenues fell from $130 billion in 2000 to $107 billion in 2002. US carriers reported losses of $20 billion in 2002 and their losses totalled $58 billion between 2001 and 2005. The public had lost trust in airline travel.

The civil airline regulators reacted swiftly to 9/11. A US rapid response team, comprising aircraft designers, airline operators, pilots and cabin crew concluded that immediate action was required to reinforce cockpit doors to prevent unauthorised people entering the cockpit. This conclusion was ratified by the International Civil Aviation Organization and resulted in amendments to Annex 6 of its convention, to mandate the fitting of secure doors.

Following the introduction of these rules, they were finetuned to address safety risks such as pilot incapacitation, rapid decompression, door system failure and post-crash cockpit egress. The fitting of secure cockpit doors, as a security measure assumed that the threat to passenger safety came from outside the cockpit not from within. A potential threat from within the cockpit was never fully considered. Yet the evidence was available. Between 1982 and 2001 four passenger aircraft accidents were attributed to suicide resulting in the deaths of 389 people.

Since this accident some airlines have reacted by introducing new cockpit rules. These rules require that two crewmembers remain in the cockpit at all times. However, this reaction is unlikely to enhance passenger safety because in at least one previous accident the non-flying pilot, although in the cockpit was unable to counter the pilot’s actions. As the BEA stated in its report, a secure cockpit door cannot address a risk to passenger safety if the risk exists on either side of the door.

The key to passenger security should be is to prevent any potential security threat from boarding the aircraft so far as reasonably practicable. The threat from passengers though constantly evolving has been reduced by security screening. The threat from within the cockpit is yet to be fully addressed but the BEA report has taken a systemic approach in its analysis of the crash and has made a number of important safety recommendations to minimise mental incapacitation of crew in the cockpit.