‘Rule of Two’? What about the ‘Rule of Three’?

by Philip Baum

I’m perplexed. Within 24 hours of the premature announcement that Andreas Lubitz had intentionally flown Germanwings flight 4U9525 into the Alps, airlines, regulators and governments were announcing the introduction of new rules by which no pilot would ever be left alone on the flight deck. The so-called ‘rule of two’ requires the pilot who wishes to exit the cockpit summoning another crewmember – usually a flight attendant – to the flight deck who must then enter the cockpit and remain inside whilst the pilot is outside. Sounds simple and straightforward…but it isn’t!
Before we even consider the practicalities of the new requirement, the knee-jerk response demonstrates exceptionally poor risk management by the industry. To start with, we were all well aware of the risks of a suicidal pilot locking him or herself into the cockpit; for airlines which had not adopted the ‘rule of two’ before the Germanwings incident, they could not – or at least should not – have been ignorant of the loss of a LAM Mozambique Airlines aircraft due to the actions of a suicidal pilot in November 2013. And if, somehow, that event had passed them by, surely they must have considered the implications of the actions of an Ethiopian Airlines pilot in February 2014?

The sudden introduction of the ‘rule of two’ as a standard, rather than a recommendation, is illustrative of our reactive approach to aviation security and our tendency to ignore events which occur beyond European or North American shores. There are times when a speedy revision of procedures is necessary, especially when a terrorist plot is unearthed and countermeasures pertinent to the attack modus operandi detected are required. Yet aircrew mental health has long been an unspoken concern and there was no greater likelihood of another act of aircraft-assisted suicide the day after the Germanwings loss than the day before it. In 2011, Robert Brown, a British Airways pilot who had murdered his wife, admitted at his own trial that, “I thought if I go to work, I could crash an aircraft, or fly to Lagos and crash it there, or hang myself in the hotel room”, when explaining how he intended to avoid arrest. He was a B-747 pilot and fortunately phoned in sick the next day instead of operating the flight.

Many airlines have long operated with the ‘rule of two’. Much has been written about the fact that American carriers follow this procedure, although it is important to note that their reasoning is based on safety and practicality rather than as a method of overpowering a suicidal pilot. On aircraft where there are no cameras by which the pilots can see what is happening outside the flight deck door, should one pilot leave the flight deck, the other pilot would have to leave their seat – and therefore the controls – in order to look through the peephole to allow their colleague back in; for that reason a flight attendant would enter the cockpit to manage the door.