The Germanwings Crash Raises Questions About Reinforced Cockpit Doors

Investigators believe the co-pilot involved in a March 24 Germanwings plane crash refused to let the captain reenter the cockpit, calling attention to the safety of super secure cockpit doors. Emmanuel Foudrot/REUTERS

As new, tragic details emerge about the Germanwings plane crash, aviation safety experts are questioning whether post-9/11 security measures render airplane cockpits too inaccessible.

The Germanwings plane, affiliated with Lufthansa airlines, was on its way from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany, on March 24 when it crashed in the French Alps. At a press conference this morning, a French prosecutor identified the co-pilot, who is believed to have deliberately crashed the plane, as Andreas Lubitz. Investigators believe that all 144 passengers and six crew members have died.

Following the crash, an investigator said flight voice recorder data suggested the captain had left the cockpit, leaving the co-pilot alone. Today, the French prosecutor added that the co-pilot may have deliberately prevented the captain from re-entering through the locked cockpit door.

It wasn't always so difficult for pilots to move in and out of the cockpit during flight; Airlines began adding extra security measures to cockpit doors in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. "The policy before 9/11 was if you got hijacked on the plane, you accommodate them, you do what they want," says Peter Goelz, who served as managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1995 to January 2001. After 9/11, he says, "there was a major reassessment of policy."

That reassessment came on September 28, 2001, when President George W. Bush announced that the government would award $100 million in government grants to airlines to help fund upgrades to cockpit doors. Manufacturers such as Triad International Maintenance and Advance Composite Technologies raced to provide stronger doors and reportedly experienced a bump in sales. Between October 2001 and January 2002, airlines completed upgrades on 4,000 planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In January 2002, the FAA announced that it would require higher "standards to protect cockpits from intrusion and small arms or fragmentation devices." Airlines would need to install reinforced doors on more than 6,000 airplanes by April 2003, and within 45 days of the announcement, they would need to put "temporary internal locking devices" in place on all passenger and cargo planes with cockpit doors.

Reinforced cockpit doors are "designed to resist intrusion by a person who attempts to enter using physical force" and "minimize penetration of shrapnel," the 2002 memo states. "The door will be designed to prevent passengers from opening it without the pilot's permission. An internal locking device will be designed so that it can only be unlocked from inside the cockpit."

Among the companies to manufacture cockpit door upgrades was Airbus, the maker of the model involved in the Germanwings crash; that plane came from a 1991 production line, the company said.

For existing planes, Airbus sold "conversion kits" to reinforce cockpit doors, first available in May 2002, according to a press release; new aircraft would come with the new doors starting that August. An Airbus executive at the time said the company was "the first large airline manufacturer" to produce a door "that meets both the new security requirements and is fully compliant with all current regulations."

Quartz found a 2002 video of the Airbus's upgraded cockpit door system, which demonstrates how an individual outside the cockpit can enter a code on a panel that opens the door if the person inside the cockpit does not override it within 30 seconds.

A voiceover in the promotional video says: "This code pad provides increased security levels and is used to notify the cockpit crew of a request for entry or to open the door in case of confirmed incapacitation of both pilots. The buzzer in the cockpit rear of the overhead panel provides an aural warning to notify the cockpit crew." The pilot can then use a "door control toggle switch" to grant or deny entry.

An Airbus spokeswoman verified to Newsweek that the video is authentic, but would not confirm whether the system shown was the one on the Germanwings crashed plane. However, Jeff Price, co-author of Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Threats, says, "Unless there was something wrong with the technology, there's no reason to assume that it would have changed."

Not all aviation safety experts believe these extra-secure doors are completely effective. In a 2007 paper, the Air Line Pilots Association, International, a union that represents more than 51,000 American and Canadian pilots, stated: "If the door remained closed and locked throughout all flight operations, flight deck security would be better assured. However, operational experience has shown that, on many flights, the fortified flight deck door does not remain closed for the entire flight. The flight crew or cabin crew members must open the cockpit door during extended operations for a variety of reasons, including crewmember coordination, meal service, and pilots' physiological needs." The union went on to suggest that the FAA require airlines to use a barrier gate between the passenger cabin and cockpit entry area. Some airlines have voluntarily used them over the years, though the FAA never adopted the suggestion to make it a mandate.

The effectiveness of reinforced cockpit doors again came up last March, following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; one theory for the vanished plane is that "something nefarious took place in the cockpit," as Popular Mechanics put it. The discussion about Flight 370 centered on whether or not the secure cockpit doors could, in some cases, protect criminal pilots from passenger intervention.

It wasn't much different from what former Transportation Security Administration undersecretary John Magaw says he learned after 9/11: "Don't lock those doors so that you can't get in from the outside if something happens," he told CNN last year. "I hope now that we will relook at that."

For U.S. airlines, according to the FAA, when one pilot leaves the cockpit, another crew member must stay in the flight deck until the pilot returns. The European Aviation Safety Agency does not have such a requirement, and one pilot can leave for certain reasons if "at least one suitably qualified pilot remains at the controls of the aircraft at all times."

"The big question that comes up is how can you get back in the door if the pilot decides to lock you out," Price says.