Cockpit protection: we need more than perceived security

For many years I was sympathetic to the calls, primarily from the pilot fraternity, that aircrew should be exempt from all but random screening. It is of course true that a pilot needs no gun, no grenade, no knife and no explosive device if they are intent on hijacking an aircraft or turning it into a weapon of mass destruction. They fly the aircraft and can do what they want, especially if they can get their colleague to leave the flight deck for a comfort break.

True, many airlines have instigated the ‘rule of two’ whereby, should one member of the technical crew have to leave the cockpit, they will be replaced by a flight attendant. To a certain extent we have mitigated the risk of a suicidal pilot being able to pull off their deadly act in private, yet we have also introduced somebody new to the flight deck – often an individual who may be a seasonal employee, who may have only received one month’s training and about whom we have far less knowledge. It would be far easier for a terrorist to gain employment as a flight attendant than as a pilot given the recruitment process and training regime.

By our latest, post-Germanwings, knee-jerk reaction we have demonstrated yet again that we are held hostage to the requirement to deliver the perception of security rather than a carefully considered, risk-based, security regime.

The limitations of the enhanced cockpit door, exploited by a number of pilots over the last two years (Germanwings, Ethiopian Airlines, LAM and, who knows, maybe Malaysia Airlines) to perpetrate acts of unlawful interference, clearly need to be addressed. Simply introducing a flight attendant to the flight deck is not the long-term solution. Have we, by mitigating one risk, in the process increased our overall vulnerability?

My concern is no longer limited to the integrity of any one flight attendant. It is sad, but true, that the most significant in-flight attacks over the last two years have not been carried out by passengers, who have to endure an arduous screening regime, nor by flight attendants. Pilots have been the perpetrators and they have to accept that, in the same way that 99.999% of passengers pose no risk, but are treated with suspicion, so too must we evaluate our airmen and women. That doesn’t mean we need to be using the same screening protocols that we use for passengers, but perhaps this would be the ideal community to target with a behavioural analysis-focussed screening regime.

In an August incident, which is easy to overlook as just another example of pilots having a few drinks too many, five airBaltic crewmembers were breathalysed upon their arrival at Oslo airport in order to operate a flight to the Greek island of Crete. All bar one were over the limit. The first officer had a blood alcohol level of 1.2%, the captain’s level was 0.4% and two of the flight attendants had levels of over 0.2%. But why were they targeted? This was not a random breathalyser test. The invisible heroes of this incident were the employees of the hotel where the crew had their layover. Worried that the crew were drinking heavily in the bar the night before a 0545 departure, they called the airport police to express their concerns. The importance of reporting unusual behaviours simply cannot be emphasised enough, even though some would argue it encourages a Big Brother culture. The case also exemplifies the value of embracing the entire aviation community and, indeed, associated businesses.