20th Mar 2018

Air tragedy poses questions on EU safety rules

The crash of a Germanwings Airbus in the French Alps on Tuesday (24 March) is raising questions about EU aviation safety rules.

The main issue is requirements on the number of crew in the cockpit during flights.

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  • Planes cockpit doors are locked and only the pilot can let people in (Photo: Airbus)

Initial conclusions after examination of the plane’s black box indicate the co-pilot deliberately locked himself in the cockpit after the flight captain left, then initiated the plane's descent until it hit a mountain.

The plane, flying from Barcelona in Spain to Duesseldorf in Germany, crashed in the southern French Alps killing all 150 people on board.

"[The co-pilot] activated the button for a reason we completely ignore but which can be analysed as a will to destroy that plane," French local prosecutor Brice Robin told a press conference on Thursday (26 March).

The cockpit voice-recorder also indicates that someone, probably the captain, tried to open the cockpit door and even punched it.

Cockpit doors are locked on almost all planes since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, when four planes were hijacked.

Doors are equipped with an unlocking system involving codes and cameras. An emergency opening system also exists in case the remaining crew in the cockpit becomes unresponsive. 

In the case of the Germanwings flight, the co-pilot, apparently, refused to unlock the door when asked by his colleague to open it.

Dominique Fouda, a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that there’s no regulatory requirement in Europe for a cabin crew member to be present in the cockpit when one of the pilots leaves.

She said the current arrangements exist for "physiological reasons".

Not all aviation safety authorities have issued specific regulations over the number of people in the cockpit after safety doors were imposed on planes.

But in the US, there is a rule that a flight attendant must go into the cockpit when one of the pilot leaves goes to use the bathroom.

This is rarely the case in Europe. Lufthansa, of which Germanwings is a subsidiary, doesn’t do it.

A few hours after revelations that the lone Germanwings co-pilot may have deliberately crashed the plane, a budget company, Norwegian Airlines, announced it would now require two people in the cockpit at all times.

Lufthansa’s boss, Carsten Spohr, refused on Thursday to follow suit.

"The captain did nothing wrong in leaving the cockpit. Flight attendants don’t have to go in the cockpit. There is no reason to change our guidelines," he said at a press conference.

The European Commission also refused to rush through changes to the current regulations.

"At this point it is important not to speculate," a commission spokesman told Euobserver.

"The European Aviation Safety Agency sent two experts to the crash site. The French authorities are leading the investigation. We need to wait and have a clear picture of the situation”.

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