Amidst all the soul searching, and pontificating about how to deal with the problem of pilot’s ‘suiciding by airliner’, you are unlikely to find 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. back when airliner’s first started to fly they needed a big aircrew, for example on the Comet airliner you’d find a pilot, copilot, navigator and flight engineer. Now while that’s a lot of manpower to pay for it did possess 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 go see if 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 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 that’s also a solution that’s unlikely to be taken up. 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 no go alone 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 🙂