The co-pilot locking out the pilot — as happened on board the Germanwings flight 4U9525 — is less likely here, given a scare during an Air India flight in 2010.
A close shave for an Air India Express Dubai-Pune flight five years ago prompted the country’s aviation regulator to issue an air safety circular that year, which mandated Indian carriers to have at least one pilot and one cabin crew member in the cockpit at all times during a flight.
During the AI flight in 2010, a commander got locked out of the cockpit and the co-pilot struggled to steady the aircraft during a phase of heavy turbulence. The incident forced the DGCA to come out with an air safety circular that made it mandatory for all Indian airlines to have a cabin crew member in the cockpit, when either of the two pilots left it.
Ever since the Germanwings flight crashed, deployment of crew in the cockpit during the flight has come under scrutiny, with airlines across the world announcing a change of policy. A senior official with the aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), who did not want to be identified, said, “The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) does not have any formal rules regarding deployment of crew in the cockpit. Every country frames its own guidelines.”
The DGCA’s 2010 circular, which is broadly on the lines of the US Federal Aviation Administration regulations, notes, “It is to reiterate that in case one pilot leaves the flight deck, cabin crew shall be in the flight deck and will occupy one of the observer seats. The cabin crew in the flight deck will remain vigilant in case of subtle incapacitation of the flight deck crew or any other situation that requires assistance… The cabin crew shall remain in the flight deck till such time the flight deck crew member returns to the flight deck.”
The presence of a cabin crew member in the cockpit, in the absence of one of the pilots, helps in verifying the identity of the person trying to gain access. “In case the pilot inside is incapacitated, the cabin crew member can verify identify and allow access,” said the official. Moreover, in India, as in the United States, a second cabin crew blocks the galley area outside the cockpit with a beverage cart or a movable barrier when opening and closing the flight deck door, to restrict unauthorised access.
On Thursday, the Canadian government made it mandatory for all airlines to have a cabin crew member present in the cockpit if one pilot leaves it temporarily. UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, too, has urged airlines to review their practices. At
present, Europe does not require two crew members to be present in the cockpit at all times. Post the incident, EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic, Monarch, Thomas Cook, Air Berlin PLC, Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA and Emirates are in the process of implementing the two-crew policy. Lufthansa, though, has said its crew policy will remain unchanged for now.
Sources in the DGCA, however, said that the issue of pilots’ mental health also needs to be looked into. Post the 9/11 attacks, airlines worldwide had to instate secure bullet-proof doors which can be opened only from inside. A keypad outside the cockpit allows an emergency code to be keyed in, triggering off an alarm inside for 30 seconds. The door then opens for five seconds, but only if the pilot inside does not deny access.
“Even though conclusive proof has not surfaced, Malaysian flight MH370 too seems to have been deliberately sabotaged. If a pilot decides to lock himself in, there is no way to gain access. He may be able to overpower an attendant inside. Regular psychiatric tests for pilots need to be considered, as also the issue of access from outside,” said a second DGCA official.