Amidst all the online soul searching, and pontificating about how to deal with the problem of suicide by airliner, which is let’s face it still a very, very small risk, what you are unlikely to find is any real consideration of how we have arrived at this pass. There is as it turns out a simple one word answer, and that word is efficiency, the dirty little secret of the aviation industry.
You see back when the big airliner’s started to fly, like the comet airliner above, they needed a big aircrew, pilot, copilot, navigator and flight engineer. Now while that cockpit was a busy place it did posess one hidden advantage, and that was with a crew size greater than three it’s very, very difficult (OK effectively impossible) for any one member of the flight crew to attempt to commit suicide. If you think I exaggerate then think about whether there has ever been a successful suicide by airliner where there were three or more aircrew in the cockpit. Nope, none.
But, the aviation industry is one driven by cost. Each new generation of aircraft needs to be cheaper to operate which means that the airlines and airline manufacturers are locked in a ruthless evolutionary arms race to do more with less. One of the easiest ways to reduce operating costs is to reduce the number of aircrew needed to fly the big jets. Fewer aircrew, greater automation is an equation that delivers more efficient operations. And before you the traveller get too judgemental about all this just remember that the demand for cost reduction is in turn driven by our expectation as consumers that airlines can provide cheap mass airfare for the common man.
So we’ve seen the number of aircrew slowly reduce over the years, first the navigator went and then the flight engineer until we finally arrived at our current standard two man flight crew. There’s just one small problem with this, if one of those pilots wants to dispose of the other there’s not a whole lot that can be done to prevent it. In our relentless pursuit of efficiency it seems we have inadvertently eliminated a safety margin that we didn’t even realise was there. So what can we really do about it? Well the simple ‘we know it works’ answer is to go back to three crew in the cockpit, which effectively eliminates the hazard, of course in this cost sensitive industry that’s not a solution that’s all that likely. In the absence of going back to three man crews well, we get what we’re currently getting, aspirational statements about better management of stress and depression in aircrew, or the use of cabin crew to enforce two man rules. But when that cockpit door is closed it’s still one on one, and all such measures do in the final analysis is reduce the likelihood of the hazard, by some hard to quantify amount, they don’t eliminate it. As long as we fly two man crews behind armoured doors unfortunately the possibility and therefore the hazard remains.
Happy flying 🙂