Airlines in Australia will be able to re-consider whether to maintain the “two in the cockpit” rule, says the country’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) following a review, which found “unintended consequential risks” in relation to the practice. Australia will be the latest country to be able to go back to its original cockpit safety procedures, following the likes of Germany, Canada, and Switzerland.

On March 30, 2015,  Australia joined other jurisdictions around the world requiring two people to be in the cockpit of commercial flights operated by aircraft with 50 or more seats at all times. The rule was put in place shortly after the deliberate crash of Germanwings Flight 9525.

At the time, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss called the decision „a sensible, measured response that combines safeguarding the travelling public with the practical capabilities of the aviation sector”.

“The pilot in command of the aircraft will retain operational discretion on the application of the two flight crew cockpit requirements, to ensure safe operations, depending on flight crew circumstances,” he was quoted as saying by Australian Aviation.

As you may recall, the Germanwings crash was caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who, as black box recordings revealed, locked the captain out of the cockpit and took control of an Airbus A320 passenger plane, crashing it into the French Alps. Subsequent investigations revealed that Lubitz had been treated for mental health problems in the months before the crash.

Following the tragedy, which took the lives of all 150 people on board, many airlines, including Australia’s flagship carrier Qantas, changed their flight deck protocols according to two-people in the cockpit rule.

The rule essentially means that cabin crew should be present in the cockpit whenever the pilot or co-pilot is absent as a safety measure (in the Germanwings case Lubitz locked himself in the cockpit once the captain had gone to the bathroom).

Why the change now

CASA says it has recently consulted with the aviation industry and reviewed the practice. What seems to have been concluded, as the regulator states in its July 2018 monthly briefing, is that “air operators should take an operational approach to maintaining the so-called ‘two in the cockpit’ practice”.

CASA’s advisory note goes on to say that its review of the rule in Australia “found there were unintended consequential risks, including the second person in the cockpit potentially distracting the pilot, making inadvertent contact with cockpit switches and taking cabin crew away from their safety role in the cabin”.

“It was also found the practice complicated flight crew access to the cockpit and introduced an additional risk of flight deck incursion”.

This comes down to what experts have observed all along: the rule means that an extra person (cabin crew) can access the cockpit; the number of times the cockpit door opens during the flight doubles (first to let a flight attendant in, then open again to let the pilot out). All of which could be just as potentially dangerous.

The regulator’s recommendation for air operators is “to evaluate their own safety requirements and make an operational decision on whether to maintain ‘two in the cockpit’ in their standard operating procedures”.

CASA said the operational approach to the practice was in line with the position taken by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which in a 2016 Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) adopted a more relaxed approach, advising to use the measure only on a case-by-case basis.

“The SIB recommends that first a risk assessment is performed and then, based on the results of the assessment, the operator may decide to maintain the “2-persons-in-the-cockpit” procedure as one possible mitigating measure,” EASA stated on its website at the time.

European airlines including Lufthansa Group, Swiss and Austrian Airlines have ended the practice back in 2016-2017, following this safety bulletin. The main focus now being flight crews‘ mental health.

Just in July 2018, the European Union (EU) published new safety rules for the mental fitness of air crews, which include alcohol testing of pilots and cabin crew for all European and foreign airlines who fly into the territories of the EU, as well as a requirement for European airlines to perform a psychological assessment of their pilots before the start of employment.

On July 25, 2018, the European Union (EU) published new safety rules on air operations, with new provisions to better support the mental fitness of air crew.

Going back to one-person-in-cockpit: yay or nay?

The Australian International Pilots Association (AIPA) as well as the Australian Federation of Air ­Pilots (AFAP) have welcomed CASA’s recommendation.

According to AIPA‘s president Murray Butt, the rule’s introduction was an overreaction: “The rule was introduced without any analysis of the risk factors of having a third person coming into the flight deck”.

“We hope the airlines move quickly and they can make the public understand that while the two in the cockpit rule was introduced to placate public fears, now they’ve had a good look at it, it’s not such a good idea,” he added.

Marcus Diamond from AFAP said his organization was hopeful airlines would act quickly with CASA’s advice. “We couldn’t see any real benefit from (the rule),” Diamond commented.

Meanwhile, the social media response to CASA‘s move has been less optimistic. Here are several comments posted on Australian Aviation, which broke the story on August 6, 2018, official LinkedIn account:

„I think there is some misunderstanding as to what this article is about. The point being made is that a second person in the cockpit could potentially be more of a distraction to the remaining pilot vs the risk the remaining pilot will have malicious intentions,“ wrote Craig Coleman (Head of Training and Checking).

“This decision is downright stupidity at its best, the change only made to relieve casa of any possible backlash in the event of an incident, placing responsibility with the operator. All in typical casa form, this “wipe our hands clean” approach continues. The good thing is, our operators, I assume would not follow such a stupid suggestion. How disappointing,” said Joel Beazley (Professional Pilot).