August 17, 2022

Regulators in the United States may soon require commercial aircraft to have a second barrier to get into the flight deck. Is this a sensible development that will make flying safer, or unnecessary and a step too far?

FAA proposes requiring second flight deck door

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has today announced a proposal that would require commercial airplanes in the United States to have a second barrier to get into the flight deck. With this, aircraft manufacturers would have to install a second barrier, though it would only apply to newly produced planes, starting two years after the rules go into effect.

This was actually proposed several years back — the FAA was supposed to have adopted this rule by 2019 under a 2018 federal law, but the agency hasn’t acted until now.

Of course the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed aviation forever. Since 9/11, we’ve seen the introduction of reinforced cockpit doors, which realistically can’t be broken into.

This new law is intended to address situations where one of the pilots has to leave the cockpit (whether to go to the bathroom, go on break, etc.). Currently in these situations, a flight attendant will simply block the aisle with a cart while the door is open.

FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen has said that “each additional layer of safety matters,” and that “protecting flight crews helps keep our system the safest in the world.”

Meanwhile House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio said the following in 2019, when questioning the FAA’s delay to act:

“Today, at most airlines, the only line of defense of the cockpit when a pilot needs to exit during flight is an improvised procedure involving flight attendants and beverage carts. This is not, and cannot be, a permanent solution.”

So, how would this second cockpit barrier work? Let’s use the below picture of the front of an American A321neo cabin as an example. It’s my understanding that right in front of the bulkhead there would be a second door that could essentially just “fold” out as needed — it would be open for most of the flight, and would only close when the cockpit needs to be accessed.

The front of the Airbus A321neo cabin

Is a second cockpit barrier really necessary?

It goes without saying that everything should be done to make aviation as safe as possible. That being said, this seems like a solution that doesn’t actually solve a whole lot. How many people have successfully broken into a cockpit of a commercial airplane in the 20+ years since 9/11? I think zero globally, but someone correct me if I’m wrong.

That comes down to multiple factors:

  • It comes down to reinforced cockpit doors, which mean that you can’t break into cockpits
  • It comes down to the mentality around hijackings having changed; previously if someone threatened an airline employee with a weapon, they’d typically let them into the cockpit, while that wouldn’t happen in a post-9/11 world
  • Passengers wouldn’t allow a hijacking to happen; in the past they would have probably cooperated with hijackers, thinking that would be the solution that leads to the least damage, while I think that mindset has changed post-9/11

Let’s talk about another aspect of the reinforced cockpit door. How many planes have crashed in the past decade due to one pilot being locked out of the cockpit and not being able to get back in?

To me pilot mental health and one person in a cockpit presents a much bigger risk to aviation than adding a second cockpit door. Admittedly this is more of a global problem than a US problem — at least US airlines are required to always have two people in the cockpit, which is why a flight attendant always has to enter the cockpit when a pilot leaves. This doesn’t apply to foreign airlines flying to the US, though.

I’m much more concerned about the actions of pilots

Bottom line

The FAA is proposing that commercial airplanes soon be required to have a second cockpit barrier, which would likely come in the form of a second door that extends out when the cockpit door needs to open. This would apply to newly built planes starting two years after the law is enacted.

On the one hand, I guess this can’t hurt, other than the cost. On the other hand, this seems to address what I’d consider to be an absolutely tiny risk.

What do you think — is a second cockpit barrier on commercial airplanes really necessary?

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