Secondary Cockpit Barriers
The Congress is empowered with writing legislation which instructs the FAA and the rest of the Executive Branch to follow certain directions. The words may be very specific or general. The more precise language usually reflects a Congressional policy about which there is little or no debate. Usually the statute recognizes that the agency has greater technical expertise and creates broad terms allowing the FAA, for example, to utilize its knowledge to define the specific regulation.
A bill, instructing the FAA to direct that the airlines install secondary barriers for its cockpit doors, has been introduced. Obviously, the authors and co-sponsors believe that their exact requirement is not a matter of debate.
On September 11, 2013, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced identical bills in the House and the Senate called the “Saracini Aviation Safety Act of 2013” to direct the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to issue an order with respect to secondary cockpit barriers. The Congressman from Eastern Pennsylvania reintroduced the legislation as HR 911and when his text was not included in either the House or Senate versions of the FAA Reauthorization Act, he issued the following statement:
“As the House acts to clear the way for a bipartisan, long-term FAA reauthorization, it is imperative that that legislation include language mandating the installation of secondary cockpit barriers on board commercial airliners…These low-cost, lightweight additions would provide a much needed layered security option for the flight deck, protecting it from anyone attempting to hijack a plane.
“We’ve already seen what can happen when our planes are turned into weapons of war. We should not let that happen again, and mandating secondary cockpit barriers is the best method to prevent another tragedy. I urge leaders of both parties to include this critical requirement in any long-term reauthorization we consider this year.”
“For too long our skies have remained unprotected from the threats posed by those who seek to do us harm,” Ellen Saracini, widow of the late Victor J. Saracini, a pilot during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said. “The drafting and consideration of a long-term FAA reauthorization bill must include language requiring secondary cockpit barriers – the most effective way to protect the flight deck.”
The original “Saracini Aviation Safety Act of 2013″ was not included in legislation three years ago. The Aviation Subcommittee’s Chairman LoBiondo was not comfortable then with mandating this additional equipment; so he offered an alternative approach, HR 2946, the “Risk-Based Cockpit Security Act of 2013.” That proposal would have instructed the Administrator of TSA to make an assessment that:
(1) identifies any risk posed to commercial aviation security if a flight deck door is opened while a commercial aircraft is in flight;
(2) identifies methods to mitigate such risk; and
(3) recommends security standards for any mitigation method that involves installing a physical secondary cockpit barrier on a commercial aircraft.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association responded that H.R. 2946 was a “potentially fatal legislative stall tactic that would prevent the installation of secondary barriers aboard commercial planes.” The Air Line Pilots Association concurred that a study would be superfluous and defined in detail what this barrier would include:
“Secondary barriers are lightweight, wire-mesh, retractable locking screens that install between the flight deck door and cabin to give the crew time to open and shut the fortified flight deck door before a potential intruder has time to compromise security. Secondary barriers are inexpensive to install, costing approximately $5,000 to $12,000 per aircraft. Industry studies have found that they are a safe, effective way to add a layer of defense to the cockpit at a modest cost.”
Because of that opposition, the LoBiondo bill did not pass and three years, in which a study could have been completed and a rule promulgated, if appropriate.
In the interim, the FAA issued guidance on what an optimum security system should look like, AC 120-110 – Aircraft Secondary Barriers and Alternate Flight Deck Security Procedures Document Information. As with all ACs, the document included the following statement: “This AC is not mandatory and does not constitute a regulation. It describes an acceptable means, but not the only means, to comply with pertinent regulatory requirements.”
The complexity of this issue was demonstrated by the Germanwings tragedy. The Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses (BEA) issued a Preliminary Report on the tragic Germanwings crash. It is 29 pages long and in its last paragraph labeled “Ongoing Safety Investigation,” the French NTSB made two findings. The first, which drew most of the attention of the press, was directed to the pilot’s mental health issues and the need to address the Solomonic choice between public safety and pilot privacy.
The second point of the BEA’s future research, which did not get the same level of notice, recognized that the hardened door, designed to protect pilots from terrorists, had become an impenetrable barrier preventing anyone from stopping the suicide of the pilot and his murder of the others on board. The BEA stated as follows:
“Cockpit security: the investigation will seek to understand the compromises that were made between the requirements of security, specifically those that followed the attacks on 11 September 2001, and the requirements of flight safety. In this context, the investigation will include a focus on cockpit door locking systems and cockpit access and exit procedures.”
The BEA thinks that the door’s engineering and “fail safe” aspects needs more study. In its present design it effectively keeps people with malevolent intent out but it also has been shown as an effective barrier to keep out people with benevolent missions.
The BEA line of inquiry should urge caution. HR 911 and S 911 should not mandate a specific action, but the concerns of the BEA should be incorporated into Chairman LoBiondo’s HR 2946 Risk-Based Cockpit Security Act. The security and the aviation safety experts should examine this complex issue and get it right. A statutory mandate may result in the installation of secondary barriers more quickly, but based on the BEA inquiry, that addition may be followed by a subsequent retrofit to meet the findings of the further study.