Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Chasing the weak link

Or the law of unintended consequences.

The dreadful air accident in France has illustrated this law of unintended consequences.

Following 9/11, reinforced secure cockpit doors were introduced to prevent hijackers getting into the cockpit. The doors remained because of the recognition that access would still be required and the cost of providing a separate external door was too high.

  • Food has to be delivered to the flight deck on long trips
    • Why? Give them a small microwave and fridge and dual sourced bottled water
  • Pilots need “natural needs breaks” (as they used to be called on the railways – and pilots cannot pee out of the door! Train drivers should not either – it was not totally unknown for them to fall out whilst hanging on to something other than the door.)
    • On longer haul flights can give them separate facilities on the flight-deck side of the door. The loss of two seats is the probable cost – which at airline margins is considerable.
  • On very long-haul flights pilots need to be relieved
    • Providing flight-deck side facilities for the relief pilot is possible – but is wasted space when the aircraft is not being used on very long-haul flights.
  • A pilot might be taken ill and cabin crew may be required to give treatment. The other pilot should not be distracted by having to care for a sick colleague.

That last reason is probably the kicker – so the door remains the weak point.

The unintended consequence of locks on the door is that a member of the flight crew can be locked out and a maverick pilot can gain sole control of the plane. The weak point is the ability of the airlines to monitor the stability and security status of their pilots.

An over-ride keypad is provided so that someone who knows the code can access the flight deck.

The weak point is then the crew member who knows the code being coerced by a hijacker.

So there is a switch inside the cockpit to over-ride the keypad and prevent the door being unlocked! Which moves the weak point back to the single person left in the cockpit!

Airlines are now rushing to implement “never alone” policies, whereby when a pilot leaves the flight deck they have to be replaced by a member of the cabin crew – who presumably will fight (for their lives) with a maverick pilot to over-ride the over-ride switch.

(So the over-ride switch is made a dual switch at opposite sides of the cockpit so both have to be switched to over-ride the keypad.)

But “never alone” policies move the weak point in two ways:

  • It has to be followed. The captain can’t take a pee until a junior crew member is free to “relieve” him or her – will/can the captain wait?
  • The unintended consequence is that you then need to be more sure of the stability and security status of any member of the cabin crew who may enter the flight deck.

I suspect that vetting of cabin crew is not (currently) as rigorous as that of flight crew. And we seem to be realising that the vetting of flight crew is inadequate.

“Never Alone” policies just move the weak point and could give a false sense of security.


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