9/11 Changed How Planes Are Designed, with Tragic Consequences

The 9/11 disaster changed plane designs in a bid to keep the cockpit out of reach of terrorists, but those same changes contributed to the Germanwings flight disaster in the Alps 14 years later.

9/11 was the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history and changed American foreign policy in ways that continue to impact people today.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, four commercial airlines were hijacked and Al-Qaeda terrorists were able to gain access to the cockpit and take over the controls.

American Airlines Flights 11, 77 and United Airlines 93 and 175 were the four aircraft that crashed in various locations in the U.S.

It is unclear how exactly the hijackers gained access to the cockpit of American 11. Reports from flight attendant Betty Ong speculated they "jammed their way in."

While passengers on United 93 revolted against the hijackers and managed to deny the terrorists from reaching their intended target in Washington D.C., the other planes struck the two World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon.

The attacks left thousands dead and many more injured or suffering complications from quickly responding to the disaster.

In the aftermath of the attack, then-President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in November 2001, which aimed to prevent such an event ever happening again.

A crucial part of the legislation was that airlines would have to comply to reinforce their cockpit doors, specifically to: "fortify cockpit doors to deny access from the cabin to the pilots in the cockpit."

This would mean those outside the cockpit would be denied access when the locking mechanism was engaged.

It was hoped that by fortifying the cockpit doors, the pilots would remain safe and would deny or delay hijackers from entering and taking over planes to use in terror attacks.

But the very measure intended to protect pilots from terrorist hijackers and other attempts to interrupt or halt flights had tragic consequences in 2015.

In March that year, Germanwings flight 9525 took off from Spain's Barcelona El Prat Airport for a routine journey to Dusseldorf Airport, in Germany. Germanwings was a low-cost airline owned by Germany's biggest airline, Lufthansa.

The plane would never complete its journey, however. It was deliberately brought down by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz after he locked the cockpit door when he was alone.

American Airlines plane
The cockpits of passenger planes were redesigned by a number of airliners after 9/11. Getty Images

All 144 passengers and six crew members were killed when the aircraft smashed into the French Alps.

A joint French and German investigation into the crash concluded in January 2017 that Lubitz was solely responsible for the crash and had previously considered suicide, although he was later declared healthy and allowed to fly.

The report stated that "The reinforced structure of the cockpit doors, designed for security reasons to resist penetration, could not be broken from outside to enable somebody to enter before the aircraft impacted the terrain in the French Alps."

According to the BBC, Lubitz's parents contested the findings of the report and disputed that their son was suicidal.

In the aftermath of the crash, several countries - including Australia and Canada - required two authorized personnel to be present in the cockpit at all times, in order to avoid a similar catastrophe.

However, in countries of the European Union — where the Germanwings flight crashed — a single pilot being present in the cockpit is still allowed.

A spokesperson for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency clarified the current guidelines and requirements for airlines in the region.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, the agency said: "Single-pilot operations are currently allowed in the EU regulatory framework, limited to non-commercial operations or commercial operations with a small number of passengers.

"However, for larger aircraft commercial operations, typically airlines, the rules require a second pilot in the cockpit, in line with requirements of other regulators around the world, in order to ensure a more effective "flight management" including failure conditions and ensure redundancy in case of "incapacitation" of one of the pilots, ultimately resulting in a higher level of safety, which is the standard for today's airline operations."

Having two pilots isn't the only possible safeguard. The Agency also stated that new technologies are improving automation and can give "a higher degree of resilience towards failure conditions and external threats".

Additionally, there are ways of monitoring pilots and decreasing their workload during flights.

It has identified several factors that need to be addressed in order to ensure safe flights in the future, which include:

  • pilot workload and fatigue;
  • error management and situation awareness; pilot incapacitation;
  • sleep inertia of the pilot resting returning to the controls etc

Newsweek has contacted Lufthansa for comment.

Germanwings
Wreckage of the Airbus A320 is seen at the site of the crash, near Seyne-les-Alpes, French Alps March 26, 2015. Cockpit designs changed in the aftermath of 9/11. Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters