Airlines Are Abolishing 2-Person Cockpit Rule That Could Have Prevented Germanwings Crash

In March 2015, a Germanwings flight enroute from Barcelona to Dusseldorf crashed due to a suicidal pilot, killing all 150 people onboard. The captain had gone to the bathroom, leaving the first officer in the cockpit alone. At that point the first officer crashed the plane into the ground, as there was no one to stop him. It later came out that the first officer had a lot of mental issues, which unfortunately went untreated.

Germanwings

Following this tragedy, many airlines changed their cockpit protocols, which would have prevented this incident from directly repeating itself. Many airlines added a policy that at least two people have to be in the cockpit at all times. Essentially if one pilot needs to use the bathroom, a flight attendant would need to enter the cockpit, so that there are always two people there. This has been a policy at US airlines for a long time.

I can see both sides to this. The advantage of having two people in the cockpit at all times is that it would prevent a suicidal pilot from easily downing the plane. That’s not to say that it couldn’t still happen, but it’s certainly more difficult if you’re not alone.

But there’s another side to that as well. There are a couple of potential downsides:

  • You’re letting an extra person in the cockpit, who in theory could have bad intentions, could incapacitate the pilot, and take over
  • You’re potentially doubling the number of times that the cockpit door opens during the flight, since typically they open the door to let a flight attendant in, close it immediately, then open it again to let the pilot out, etc.

While airlines like Lufthansa (which has the same parent company as Germanwings) changed their policy following the crash so that there are always two people in the cockpit, it looks like they’re backtracking on that.

BBC is reporting that the German airline association is going back to their original cockpit safety protocol, no longer requiring two people in the cockpit at all times:

The German airline association BDL announced the change, which will come into effect by 1 June, on its website. It said its airlines will be re-introducing their original cockpit safety procedures.

BDL said that its airlines had “independently” reviewed the rules and decided that the two-person rule had no safety benefits – and could actually be more dangerous.

The group said the changes caused “more frequent and predictable” opening of the cockpit door and expanded the number of people with access to the cockpit.

Lufthansa, the country’s biggest airline, is one of the groups removing the requirement. Its airlines include Austrian Airlines, Swiss Airlines, and Eurowings – which was merged with Germanwings in 2015, a process which had begun before the company’s high-profile crash.

So the rules have changed, and Lufthansa group airlines will be modifying their policies shortly, so that only one person needs to be in a cockpit at a time.

Lufthansa-First-Class-9

On one hand I see the logic in their decision. There’s no denying that there’s a lot of security theater going on at airports and on planes, and I’d like to think I approach most of this rationally.

However, I have to say that this policy change makes me slightly uneasy. My single biggest fear of flying is the mental health of pilots. That might sound crazy, but flying has gotten so safe that the only thought I have in the back of my mind is if the pilots have a will to live.

That might sound dramatic, but two of the last big accidents could have arguably been prevented if two people were in the cockpit — certainly the Germanwings one could have, and there’s a good chance that MH370 could have been prevented as well, given the prevailing theory of what happened.

So I don’t want to say this makes me scared to fly — it certainly doesn’t — though I was a bit more at ease with the previous policy in place. With two of the biggest aviation disasters in recent history seemingly involving pilot mental health, I can’t help but question whether there’s really no safety benefit here.

What do you make of this policy change?

Comments

  1. Airlines, airports, security and crew have to know who we are, passports, Visa’s, every detail… yet we truely don’t have a clue who our pilots are. That is worrying. We’re trusting these women and men to fly us home, to our families, for business… but who are they and how are they?

  2. I don’t decide these policies so it’s kinda like when a drunk driver slams into an innocent car waiting for a red light to turn green. Sometimes people get caught unlucky and die.

    Just gotta cross your fingers and hope you aren’t next.

  3. How does the 2 person rule decrease safety? The door opens the same number of times, once for the pilot to come out to use the lav and the FA to go in (that’s once), and then a second time for the pilot to go back in and the FA to come out; which is the same number of times the door would have to open in the absence of such a policy. Am I missing something here?

  4. ok, i agree with you here and it also makes me uneasy, the two pilot rule seems completely reasonable.

    but this is hardly “AIRLINES” which would be all of them everywhere. this is just Lufthansa and their group. This will make me personally more uneasy about flying them.

  5. @Laurel, in theory possibly, but in practice I’ve seen it as follows….

    1. Door opens to let FA in, door closes.
    2. Door opens to let FO out, door closes.
    3. Door opens to let FO in, door closes
    4. Door opens to let FA out, door closes

    I guess if they weren’t letting someone in, it would only have to open twice, one to let them out, once to let them back in.

  6. We don’t let the F/A in then close the door, then open the door to let the pilot out, we swap them while the door is open (my plane, the 737 can’t fit 2 people standing at one time anyway). I think that an F/A going in then a pause for the pilot to come out is a great way to telegraph to any bad guys what’s coming.

  7. At the end of the day…the airline was to blame for allowing a mentally unstable pilot to fly.
    End of story.

    God rest the souls who perished.

  8. Agree with LMcK completely. While the 2-person rule is in place to prevent mentally unstable pilots from doing any harm, there is always the possibility the other person is incapacitated or is unable to do anything — how much does a flight attendant really know about flying a plane? Rather than focus on preventing an incident when it’s about to happen (which has a higher chance of error), why not stem it at the source? Airlines and regulators need more stringent background checks and mental health examinations, not rules on having 2 people in the cockpit.

  9. I Wish you were old enough to remember flying on foreign carriers before Bush when the rest of the world had open cockpits. Guests were invited. There were never problems. Only the US, India, So. Korea and Taiwan had the slammed sterile cockpit rule. The FAA got its wish . Here are unintended consequences. I unlike you fly 30% of what I used to as flying (for one that Really experienced commercial aviation) has become so boring.

  10. @Steve – before Bush?
    Don’t you mean before 9/11?
    Which many of us remember all too well?

    We all want to be safe and get from A – B.

    Fingers crossed this can continue to happen for all good people.

  11. What about Schengen? Came as a HUGE (or should that be YUGE for the US guys) surprise to find out that intra EU flights require no ID!!!!!! So having printed my boarding pass at the hotel, I could have given it to Osama or anyone else, and they would be allowed to board the flight as me, no checks, no nothing.
    Truly shocking! So simple to organise…

  12. Since 1931 there were only 4 suicides which can be compared to the Germanwings incident. 2 of them with only one person in the cockpit. But there were 1074 hijacked planes in the same time frame…

  13. @R B – agree. Didn’t an AA pilot have a heart attack and die on a recent flight? Aside from the mental health of pilots, physical health is also a factor. I think this policy change is bad.

  14. Well, this a cultural thing – and I’m afraid of that very cultural aspect. In Germany and the neighboring countries, being a pilot is a macho thing. They never wanted to discuss the issue and were humiliated by a flight attendant sitting in the cockpit …

    The number of pilots with psychological problems is huge, especially in this climate – I know about a dozen of them. Obviously, not all of them will commit suicide, let alone taking passengers and crew with them. But the risk taken is enormous.

  15. @Chris
    Intra-European flights do require ID. But the ID can take the form of a national EU identity card rather than a passport.

    Unless you’re from an EU country like the UK which doesn’t have ID cards, or from a non-EU (non-EFTA, actually – I think!) country – in which case you still need a passport.

  16. @Chris @Paul

    Although in theory you need a valid ID (passport or national EU identity card) for Schengen flights, it is almost never checked based on my experience. And when it is occasionally checked, it is by the airline ground staff for revenue-driven reasons.

    However, I do not believe that this should change. Free movement (without long passport checks) is something I really value as an European. Let’s face it: systematic ID checks are extremely unlikely to prevent any form of terrorism. As for “Osama” (sadly I guess you are using this name as “terrorist”), he could certainly afford to buy his own ticket and avoid any problem at an ID check should he have bad intentions, making the whole idea completely pointless.

    Regarding the two person cockpit rule, while I won’t feel particularly less safe when flying Lufthansa, it also makes me feel uneasy. Aircraft safety has greatly improved due to what has been learned from past incidents, and I believe all the procedures involving crew and passengers should follow the same path. This rule shouldn’t have been abolished…

  17. Make flying more automatic, remove humane pilots who are the main cause of accidents. I can tell you that it’s totally possible technically.

  18. This has nothing to do with a safety benefit – it is simply a cost cutting measure. How is it a safety measure if the bad guy is assigned to fly the plane and has no-one else in the cockpit? How is it a safety issue if the poor pilot gets sick and dies – as it happened to two pilots this year. I continue to be amazed at the lack of critical thinking skills on behalf of the public.

  19. Trains are operating without drivers and cars/trucks seem to be next. Considering that airports/airways are a lot more regulated, than your average freeway, this ought to become an irrelevant question in the coming decades.

  20. If a pilot has an incapacitating event (heart attack etc) while by themselves in the cockpit the other crew members can still open the door through a master code. A suicidal pilot can just “deny” the master code through a rotary knob.
    Not saying the single pilot change is better, but there are safeguards in place for physiologic events.
    BTW, most of the cargo airlines (FedEx/UPS) only fly with 2 pilots most of the time… and they have lots of big airplanes.

  21. There are many reasons why you’d want to people on the flight deck at once, and obviously pilot mental health is among them. I’m not sure if it’s something that happens on international airlines, but at least in the US, one of the flight attendants blocks the aisle with a beverage cart before the door opens. Maybe it’s security theater, maybe it’s not. But I can tell you that in a post 9/11 world, if someone tries to leap over that thing, they’ll end up in a world of hurt, to paraphrase Walter Sobchak.

  22. Does anybody really think even having a reinforced cockpit door/sterile flight deck is preventing much of anything? I don’t believe it would have prevented 9/11. The whole reason it happened is because none of the passengers thought the hijackers motive was suicide. Would a group of passengers in todays world sit idly by as a few men stormed the cockpit?

  23. Rather than address the 2-person rule directly, I’d like to go back to the original problem that led to the Germanwings crash and why it could happen again. The issue has to do with German privacy laws. Under the law in place at the time of the crash, German doctors were constrained by law from revealing any medical problems concerning the pilot. The suicide pilot’s doctor COULD NOT inform Lufthansa or Germanwings of the pilot’s vision problem or psychological issues. Privacy is a BIG deal in Germany. I have heard plenty about it from my fiancee who is German. Until and unless German legislators and the airlines carve out an exception whereby the doctor can inform the airline of medical or paychological findings that would disqualify a pilot from flying duties, the same or similar scenario could occur again in some form or another. If there has been a change in German law as regards the above, I would like to hear about it.

  24. This is yet another example of an article that’s been written by a person with no knowledge of the subject matter. He starts with a completely false premise and runs with it. I am a wide body captain for a U.S. major airline and I can tell you unequivocally that the two person rule has absolutely nothing to do with pilot “mental health. It is in place solely because there must be at least one pilot in a control seat at all times. Consequently, when one pilot leaves the cockpit and then wants to re-enter, the pilot in the cockpit cannot leave his seat to verify who is outside the door prior to opening it. That is the sole function of the flight attendant, to verify who’s there before opening the door. And by the way, the procedure doesn’t require the door to be opened any more than if only one person was going out.
    This is a perfect example of people discussing things and feeling like they understand a situation when, in fact, their entire premise is in error.

  25. Um…how does showing an ID make flying any safer?

    The TSA’s so bad at recognizing US driver’s licenses that Washington DC is having to change theirs! The TSA regularly gave me grief about my old Florida driver’s license, claiming it was fake even though it’s straight from the Florida DMV and was in great shape.

    Thousands of fake IDs are made every month in the USA. Millions more around the world. This step does nothing to make air travel safer. Instead, it’s a nice revenue protection step for the airlines. In the past, people had paper tickets and would re-sell them if they weren’t able to use them.

    I’m with Mark Roth on this, but from a slightly different perspective. The airlines need to open up clear lines of communication with their crews and create some sort of program where pilots would feel comfortable going to their Chief Pilot and saying, “Hey, I have a problem…” and not get crucified by the airline. I know many US domestic airlines have something in place, although I’ve only heard of it being used by pilots with substance abuse issues.

  26. You said it very well here as for airlines are abolishing 2-Person Cockpit Rule That Could Have Prevented German wings Crash.

  27. Clearly this is a move by the management to divert attention of the public so that they are not the focus of the issue. It’s smoking the observations of the public to something else, let the news pass by and get back to the regular low performance high paying job they enjoy.

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