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Cockpit Doors -- A False Sense of Security?

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COCKPIT DOORS A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY?

 

By

 

Ken Cubbin

 

 In an 18 month period following 9/11 more than 10,000 enhanced cockpit security doors were installed on airliners around the world. The new doors, hinges and lock mechanisms are meant to protect cockpits from forcible entry of persons. Even so, doors must still comply with federally-mandated functions such as emergency egress of pilots, cockpit rescue access, and air pressure equalization in the event of rapid decompression. Other security enhancements that were initiated after 9/11 include hiring more air marshals, better screening of passengers and bags, and approval for some pilots to carry guns. As a result of these changes most passengers rest assured that cockpits are now impervious to attack from terrorists. They think another 9/11 could not happen.

Just how accurate are these perceptions?

 

Pilots have to go too

Pilots need to use the restroom in flight and flight attendants need to gain access to the cockpit to bring pilots refreshments. As a result, one pilot union estimates that the cockpit door is opened approximately 8 times during an average flight -- thats once every 20 minutes. Currently a number of carriers are using ad hoc procedures to try and reduce the vulnerability of the cockpit whenever the door is opened. Some have instituted a two-in-the-cockpit rule. Here a flight attendant is summoned by the pilots via the interphone. The flight attendant then stands guard outside the cockpit while his identity and area security is visually checked by the pilots. Visual identification is accomplished by peep holes and/or security cameras. The pilot then opens the door and exchanges positions with the flight attendant a virtual body exchange. When the pilot wants to reenter the cockpit the procedure is reversed.

 

If a flight attendant needs to bring refreshments to the cockpit the procedure is almost identical with the exception that there is no body exchange. However, another flight attendant is meant to stand guard while the other enters and exits the flight deck. The basic principle adhered to by all carriers is that the cockpit door will remain opened for as short a time as possible thereby limiting cockpit vulnerability. Unfortunately flight attendants are often too busy to adhere to this system.  

 

However, if crew members actually stick to security procedures it should be enough to prevent a rush by passengers when the door is opened, right?

 

"No," says Larry Martens, president of Crupax Security, an innovative firm based in Ottawa, Canada. "If a terrorist were ready to attack when the cockpit door is opened he could gain access to the flight deck very quickly and lock the door behind him...because cockpit doors are impervious to forcible entry even air marshals couldnt get to him...now it wouldnt take four or five hijackers on-board each aircraft to repeat 9/11, just one."

  

This vulnerability is disconcerting. However, Martens has come up with a system that will not only eliminate breaches of cockpit security, but will enable vast reductions in budgets for current, less effective, security measures.

 

Double-doors

It is well known that El Al, Israels flag carrier, uses a double cockpit door system on its airplanes. El Als procedures call for crew members to ensure that only one door is open at one time; the same principle that applies to air locks.  The El Al configuration creates a secure zone outside the cockpit for access in flight. Unfortunately, to date, installing an extra door in existing aircraft has been prohibitively expensive. However, Crupax has developed a facsimile of the second door that can be retrofitted to existing jetliners. Its main component is a motorized, retractable screen made out of Kevlar-type material that rolls up like a window blind and extends to block the hallway outside the cockpit door. A video distributed by Crupax to potential customers shows how impervious the screen is from assault. An assailant is shown trying to hack his way through the screen with a knife. Many minutes later he succeeds in creating only a small tear; insufficient for even his arm to pass through. Although the screen is not bulletproof the video proves that it can stop a terrorist from rushing the cockpit in flight, and that is all that it needs to do.

 

System components

Because of various aircraft sizes and configurations there are three levels of security protection afforded by Crupax installations. Level three, the most sophisticated configuration suitable for installation in medium to large jetliners, consists of a motorized screen, fingerprint scanner, video camera, video display unit, bathroom occupancy sensor, control panel, and audio alarm unit. The combined weight of the installation is around 40 pounds.

 

 

The retractable screen is installed in such a position that it wont interfere with flight attendant duties. It travels on top and bottom tracks so no person can try to slip under, or over, the screen when it is closed. The tracks can be set across ship, on the diagonal, or even curved to fit applicable cabin configurations. Pilots can manually open the screen from the cockpit side in an emergency. When signaled to close a warning light, situated near the leading edge of the screen, flashes to alert flight attendants not to impede its movement. However, just like your garage door, the screen is sensitive to obstructions and will automatically retract if its leading edge strikes an object. In tests, the screen has proved sturdy enough to withstand vigorous assaults for ten minutes, which is far longer than the few seconds it would take for pilots to become cognizant of an attack and close the cockpit door.

 

A fingerprint scanner is mounted on the wall outside the cockpit door. The input from this scanner connects via hidden cable to the control panel. At least one video camera, installed so pilots can clearly monitor the security zone, is connected to a video display unit in the cockpit. The possibility of someone hiding in the bathroom, with the intent of breaching the security zone, is prevented by a bathroom occupancy sensor. It is connected to a red light above the fingerprint scanner and also to a warning light on the video display unit. Pilots control the system from an on/off switch and two control buttons (one red, one green). A single chime alerts pilots that the systems computer has validated biometric data of a person wishing to enter the cockpit and that the screen has automatically closed. Two chimes indicate an invalid identification and alerts pilots that someone other than a crewmember has attempted to gain approval to enter the cockpit. This persons biometric data is stored on the computer for investigative purposes.

 

System operation

When a flight attendant wants to enter the cockpit he stands near the cockpit door, checks that the bathroom occupancy red warning light is extinguished, and places his thumb on the fingerprint scanner. If someone has tampered with the warning light, and is hiding in the forward lavatory, the bathroom occupancy sensor will prevent the screen from closing. In this circumstance a red X will also appear on the pilots video screen and a warning buzzer will sound. This same cockpit warning will occur if any action is taken by the pilots that would cause the cockpit door and screen to be open at one time. The systems computer, located in the control panel, has a database of every crewmembers biometric information and validates the fingerprint within one second. The screen then automatically closes to seal the flight attendant off from the cabin. A security zone, spacious enough for a flight attendant to stand holding a serving tray, now exists outside the cockpit door.

 

When the screen closes a chime sounds in the cockpit to alert pilots. Pilots then check on their video monitor to make sure that the flight attendant is alone and not under duress. They need not worry about the persons identity because of the biometric validation by the computer. The pilots can then electronically unlock the door to facilitate the flight attendants entry. While ever the cockpit door is open the screen will remain closed. When the flight attendant leaves and shuts the door behind him the screen will automatically open.

 

If a pilot wishes to visit the washroom in flight she visually checks the area outside the cockpit via the video screen, checks to make sure no bathroom occupancy warnings are evident, and then operates a red button on the video display unit to close the security screen. After the screen is closed the pilot, assured that a security zone now exists outside the cockpit door, can safely exit the cockpit. However, during the time she is absent from the cockpit she must leave the cockpit door ajar because the screen automatically reopen when the cockpit door is closed. The beauty of this feature is that, in an emergency, she can immediately return to the cockpit without anyone in the cabin seeing her. If she did, however, find herself locked outside the cockpit with the screen open, she would have to use the fingerprint scanner to reenter. Even though her breach of security procedures would put her at risk of an attack the other pilot, and the cockpit, would still remain secure.

 

Levels two and one

Level two installation includes all of the above with the exception of biometric identification. This configuration is designed for small commuter aircraft with one to three flight attendants. With such a small crew size there is little likelihood of pilots not visually recognizing operating flight attendants. The simplest installation, level one, is designed for small aircraft with few passengers and no flight attendants. In this aircraft type there is typically no cockpit door installed. A manually operated security screen is designed to be installed behind pilots to protect them from terrorist attack.

 

Cost is an issue

There are currently about 7,000 commercial airplanes operating under US registration, 3,800 of which are jetliners. The level-three Crupax Flight Deck Security System can be retrofitted to any jetliner at a cost of around $50, 000. However, many aircraft will require the cheaper level two or level one installation. The advantage Martens product has over solid door alternatives is that the Crupax Flight Deck Security System can be easily retrofitted to all types of airplanes in around 8 hours or less. Because the entire weight added to the aircraft by system components is low operational costs are not greatly affected. However, as yet, the system has not received certification by regulatory authorities.

 

Although unofficially acknowledged as an enhancement to current on-board security by various unions and regulators Martens has been unable to garner any advocates in the U.S. Regulatory officials will not publicly acknowledge that cockpits remain vulnerable to attack for fear of causing another downturn in passenger numbers. The current Administration has committed itself to hiring air marshals and training Federal Flight Deck Officers, says Martens, and passengers seem satisfied with that.  Martens contends that the cost of retrofitting the entire US fleet of jets would be a fraction of the current budget for the aforementioned programs, however, he says, governments take their advice from bureaucrats who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. He may be right. Even if all 3,800 jetliner installations cost $50,000, that would equate to a mere $190 million only a fraction of the bailout monies already paid to airlines. (Installation of levels one and two to all other commercial airplanes would cost another $100 million).

 

Pilots unions recognize that cockpits remain vulnerable.  While stopping short of endorsing Martens system, Captain Steve Luckey, chairman of the Airline Pilots Association national security committee, remarked in correspondence to Martens  that "a double barrier, as included in your concept, is the only practical and predictably accurate cockpit defense system."  Paul Onorato, VP of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association (CAPA) sees merit in the Crupax system but wonders who will pay for it. "Passengers wont even pay for airlines increased fuel costs," he laments. "Airlines are cash-strapped and the federal government is unlikely to want to raise taxes." Greg Overman of the Allied Pilots Association (APA) agrees. Both gentlemen remarked that there are currently a number of security and safety improvements under consideration by federal authorities, from on-board anti-missile defense systems to modifications that will inert explosive fuel/air mixtures in fuel tanks. "At this point in time Crupax's system is just one of a whole bunch of proposals that airlines have to consider," says Overman.

 

Clearly if terrorists gain entry to the cockpit during flight pilots are the last line of defense -- this has been the main argument used for arming pilots. However, Crupax's system could eliminate the need for pilots to pack heat.

 

The price of safety

Airlines will remain a principal target for terrorists because of their critical role in commerce. Just one successful attack by al Qaeda in 2001 deepened an already slowing US economy and created the impetus for huge expansion in government spending. Almost three years after the attack the US economy is finally starting to rebound. However,  massive public spending on bailing out airlines, creating the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), conducting military operations, rebuilding Iraq, combined with efforts to stimulate the economy, has ballooned the national deficit to $500 billion. Another attack at this time could cause global economic devastation. Therefore, it is extremely important to tighten up holes in security. We do not have the luxury of procrastination.

 

Unfortunately, the decision on where to spend money first may be forced upon us. If another attack were to occur bucket loads of money would be thrown at the cause of the assault just like it was last time. Of course, when everything is going along fine, nobody wants to pay for improved security. We all want a free lunch. But do we need another 9/11 before we recognize that security threats still exist? And would it not be wiser to revise the efficacy of current programs whenever a better option comes along, particularly if it is more cost effective?

 

I hope airlines are never attacked again, but I expect that an attack will happen at some time in the future. It could come in the form of a shoulder-fired missile, a bomb in a cargo compartment, a suicide bomber in an airport, or a terrorist gaining entry to a cockpit and flying a jetliner into a public building. Each scenario is possible and each would set the ailing airline industry on its you know where. The problem is that, due to survival instincts, bureaucracies have an inertia that is hard to change. And these are the very institutions that Martens must convince that change is necessary. For example, the air marshal program could be vastly reduced if airliners were retrofitted with Crupax's system. That would mean literally thousands of marshals and support staff losing their jobs. It would be politically imprudent to cause so much unemployment. So, even though air marshals cannot protect every flight, and even though a system exists that could make them redundant, the impetus is to maintain the program. The best chance for Martens is to enlighten the traveling public and gather support for his system. People who really count: voters. At the very least we should insist that our tax dollars be spent more wisely.

 

The reality is that some priority ranking has to be allocated to remaining security vulnerabilities. Throwing money at federal agencies has the effect of creating kingdoms not a safer environment. Does anyone think that airport security is better now that all screeners have been placed on the federal payroll? If your answer is yes, reported error levels in threat detection might convince you otherwise. Reports indicate that up to 50% of prohibited items make it past airport screeners during official tests. If we look back at terrorist attacks on aviation in the past, their preferred strategies have been bombs in cargo, airport shootings/bombings, and hijacking. Hijacking was their last and most successful attack; therefore, it stands to reason that they would like to replicate that attack if at all possible.

We can all bury our heads in the sand and hope that intelligence agencies detect terrorists before they are able to mount another attack on our airlines, or we can ante up the money to make our airplanes safe.

Which would you rather part with, your money or your life?

 Cubbin Consulting -- Airlines Economics, Marketing, Safety, Training and Project Management

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