Cockpit safety emerges as central concern
Access is tightened, but one worry is a master key that opens cockpit doors.
One key opens all the cockpit doors in Boeing aircraft.Skip to next paragraph
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A copy of that key is issued to every pilot who flies Boeing planes. Many just carry it on their key chains. Some flight attendants also have a copy. And in every Boeing aircraft, that same key is left in a place that is easily accessible to flight attendants, cleaners, and other workers who may need access to the cockpit.
The ease with which hijackers apparently entered the cockpits of four Boeing jets last Tuesday is raising alarms within the industry about the ubiquity of that key. It is just one of a host of issues confronting aviation officials as they struggle to understand the chain of events that led to the hijackings.
"The entire industry is going to be reexamined as a result of Sept. 11," says Liz Verdier, a spokeswoman for the Boeing Co. in Seattle. "Every part that previously met the FAA and regulatory standards is probably going to be reexamined."
Access to the cockpit is one of the issues at the top of the list. The Department of Transportation has set up a task force that will look at aircraft safety, with a "special focus" on cockpit security. It is due to make recommendations no later than Oct. 1. But since the attacks, the airlines have already made significant changes in their safety procedures surrounding crew identification and cockpit access. For security reasons, none of them are being released.
"They're really working to guard against impostors," says one industry insider, who for security reasons asked to remain anonymous. Many within the industry are stunned by how easily the hijackers apparently managed to gain access to the cockpit, especially since a set of secret codes and procedures already existed. Theories abound.
Did a pilot open the door, fearing a crew member was hurt? Or could a door have been forced open? More than a dozen times since 1997, passengers have managed to push their way in.
Or did the hijackers have what looked like certified pilot's identification? As a result, could they have already been in the cockpit - so-called "jump-seating?" That's the routine industry practice when off-duty pilots sit in the extra seat in the cockpit, rather than back with the passengers.
"I can't imagine the hijackers could have gotten into the cockpit with such seeming ease without a key, or wearing a uniform, or something like that," says the industry source. "There was a reason people's guard seems to have been let down."
Some answers may emerge from the black boxes, which record the last 30 minutes of flight time and were recovered from the wreckage at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Already, Boeing and manufacturers of other planes are reassessing how they look at the cockpit and its door.
"The cockpit door, at least until Sept. 11, was certified to provide egress for the crew in an emergency, not to prevent entry," says Ms. Verdier. "It was designed to be a deterrent: It was never designed to be security point."
That is evident by the way the keys were treated. One pilot who lost his just took another from a plane and left a note for maintenance workers. According to former pilots, the keys were not signed for when they were issued, and the pilots weren't asked to account for lost ones.
The major airlines refused comment on the cockpit door keys and referred calls to the Federal Aviation Administration, which also declined comment.
The cockpit doors and their keys also raise the sometimes-conflicting demands of safety and security. Until 1996, only pilots had access to the cockpit key. Then ValuJet Flight 592 caught fire after leaving Miami. Frantic flight attendants tried to call into the cockpit to let the pilots know. But the fire had knocked out the intercom system, and the cockpit door was locked.
As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that each flight attendant have a key. The FAA compromised and said a key should be accessible to them.
"That's a good example of safety versus security," says Ted Lopatkiewicz, an NTSB spokesman. "Our recommendation was based on a safety matter, but someone now might argue for security it's not good to have a key right there by the cockpit door."
In March 2000, after a belligerent passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight smashed into the cockpit door, several proposals were made to try to strengthen them. In April of that year, the fine for interfering with a flight crew was increased from $1,100 to $25,000.
Some pilots have also suggested putting small cameras outside the cockpit door, so pilots could see who was trying to get in. Others want to have some kind of defensive weapons in the cockpit.
"It wouldn't have to be a bullet. It could be pepper spray or mace," says Glen Phillips, a retired TWA pilot who was hijacked in the early 1970s.
"Right now, the only thing in there that could be used as a weapon is the fire ax, and that's strapped to the back of the cockpit door. There's not much room in there. You can't even take a decent swing at anybody."
But many aviation experts, like Aaron Gellman of Northwestern University's Transportation Center in Evanston, Ill., are opposed to arming the cockpits in any way. "If we're going to have a gunfight in the OK Corral, I don't want it to be in the cockpit," he says. "One, two, and three of what we need to increase security is better intelligence, and four is better screening."