Germanwings crash shines spotlight on aviation security standards

March 27, 2015
Experts say having two crew members in the cockpit should be an international requirement

With the revelation on Thursday that the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps earlier this week was likely a deliberate act carried out by the plane’s co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, questions immediately began to swirl around not only what his motivations were but also the security failings that allowed it to happen. Based on the evidence gathered thus far, authorities believe at some point after the pilot went to use the lavatory, Lubitz barricaded himself in cockpit and set the plane on a descent that led to the crash.

“This is something that happens so rarely that it is really not something you address from a security professional’s perspective because it just almost never happens,” says Jeff Price, owner of aviation management training and consulting firm Leading Edge Strategies and author of the text book, “Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats.” 

While airline crashes as a result of pilot suicide are rare, Billie Vincent, a former director of civil aviation security for the Federal Aviation Administration and author of the book, “Bombers, Hijackers, Body Scanners, and Jihadists,” says that they are not unprecedented. In fact, pilot suicide was the suspected cause of three plane crashes - EgyptAir Flight 990, SilkAir Flight 185 and a Royal Air Maroc flight – that occurred in the 90s.  

To protect against this type of scenario from playing out domestically, Vincent says that the U.S. requires that there be two people in the cockpit at all times.

“Let’s say you’re on a domestic flight. If one of the pilots has to leave the cockpit, a flight attendant then has to be present,” explains Vincent, who now serves as president and CEO of consulting firm Aerospace Services International (ASI). “Another reason for having a second person in the cockpit is what if the pilot in there becomes incapacitated and has a medical emergency? This isn’t just to protect against a suicide, but it is an all-around process to ensure the safety of the flight. If you’re talking about an international flight, oftentimes you will have a relief crew – a pilot that’s going to be resting in another part of the aircraft. That way you would always have two pilots in the cockpit.”

Vincent says that European airliners have had no such requirement in place.

“The U.S. has a central point of standard setting, as well as a central enforcement process,” he says. “If you go to the European setup you’ve got a community of nations, not a community of states. In addition to a philosophical difference in having more protections for the individual and individual liberties to a fault, you have less capability of setting a standard and, more importantly, enforcing compliance.”

However, in the wake of this week’s news, several airlines including Norwegian Air Shuttle, EasyJet, Air Canada, as well as the German Aviation Association, which represents Lufthansa and Air Berlin, have already announced that they plan to implement a two-person cockpit rule to address this security gap as soon as possible.

Pilots and air traffic controllers in the U.S. are also required to routinely undergo mandatory physical examinations that include a series of questions pertaining to their psychological health. While experts say that someone could just easily lie on their answers to these questions, Vincent says people tend to answer them truthfully due to the potential consequences.

“There are checks and balances there that would tip the scale for requiring a psychological evaluation or an in-depth medical evaluation of the pilot,” adds Vincent. “A pilot tends to answer those questions truthfully… because if you lie and you get caught, you might lose your pilot’s license.”

Although many airlines conduct their own psychological tests in addition to what is required by the FAA, Price says that those tests are really geared more toward how someone will fit into the company’s culture than about gauging their overall mental stability.

“Those tests could actually reveal that,” adds Price. “Those processes are already in place. I don’t see them being reviewed or required as a result of this, but I do see maybe a look at some procedure changes, maybe internationally, because domestically there is flight attendant up there whenever one of the pilots is out.”  

Another question that has arisen during the early stages of the investigation into the crash has been why was the pilot unable to override the lock on the cockpit door?  Vincent says it may have been a result of a toggle switch in the cockpit being moved to a position where the keypad on the door could not be used, which has been speculated in several media reports.

“You have a reinforced locked door that has certain bypasses in it so that firefighters or emergency personnel can access the cockpit if they need to, but it keeps the bad guys out,” says Price. “In this case, I don’t see any technological changes that we would need to do because you can just simply put somebody else in the cockpit. The bypasses are in place anyway so you can get in the cockpit if you need to and now it is going to be interesting to find out why those didn’t work in this case. How was the pilot flying able to override those and prevent that access?”

Regardless of what new aviation security recommendations are brought forth as a result of this crash, Vincent says no system is foolproof and that the FAA should be re-evaluating the measures that are currently in place to determine if more needs to be done.

“For instance, if you’re going to use a flight attendant in the cockpit as the second person, what are you going to train him or her to do when they step inside the cockpit? If the pilots that’s in the cockpit starts to get out of their seat, what do they do? These are questions the FAA has to ask because it is simply not sufficient to put the second person in there without having trained them to react in certain circumstances,” says Vincent. “I don’t know that they haven’t already done that, but it would certainly beg the question to the FAA: Are the procedures that we have adequate to prevent what happened? Is just having a second person in there sufficient or what else do we need to train that person to do?”

Price says he hopes this incident puts more of a focus on international safety and security requirements in aviation.

“There is a big misconception out there with, particularly Americans, that fly on a foreign air carrier and they think that those same standards apply to that carrier as would apply to an FAA-regulated, U.S.-flagged carrier and that’s just not true,” says Price.   

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief,

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.