Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe
Good is My Copilot
The recent pilot scare is a reminder that redundancy means safety
IT'S PROBABLY inevitable that JetBlue Captain Clayton Osbon's manic breakdown in the cockpit of Flight 191 is causing rampant speculation about the adequacy of pilot screening for mental conditions. There will likely be congressional hearings, lawsuits, and new administrative rules.
Not every drama or near tragedy is a teachable moment. At the risk of sounding too mellow about the whole incident, we should just sit back, admit stuff happens, and recognize that there was a backup plan: the copilot.
From affidavits by crew to the FBI, pilot Osbon was late to the airport for the flight from New York to Las Vegas, and missed a pre-flight crew meeting. Osbon was mumbling about church and religion, and once in the air, started yelling at air traffic controllers to "be quiet." The tell-tell sign, however, was about as obvious as it gets: Osbon told the copilot, Jason Dowd, that the plane was not going to Vegas and "we need to take a leap of faith."
Dowd forced Osbon out of the cockpit, managed to change the security code on the door, locked it, and then asked passengers through the in-flight system to restrain the now-outraged pilot who was banging to get back in. The passengers, many of whom were heading to a security conference in Las Vegas, included former public safety officials who luckily knew how to handle themselves and restrained Osbon.
Any good security system has redundancies because no system is perfect. Human or technical error will always happen. In airplanes, additional personnel are in the cockpit to protect passengers from pilots who suffer rare mid-flight medical incidents—food poisoning and heart attacks are the most common. It is just as useful in coping with unanticipated events as well, including the utterly rare mental freak-out.
Though the airline industry has had its fair share of business and customer-relations flaws, it has had the best overall safety record in a decade. Employees are under stress (as are passengers), and the industry has suffered through bankruptcies and reorganizations since 9/11, but that is also true in many dangerous industries. Despite a few well-publicized breakdowns, such as that of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who famously exited the airplane on the emergency slide after a verbal tirade on the intercom (and grabbing two beers), there has not been an increase in incidents of mental instability.
Since 1982, there have been only four other pilot breakdowns recorded, though tens of millions of flights. To give a sense of the uniqueness of Osbon's Charlie Sheen moment, the FAA confirmed that this is the first instance when a pilot was locked out of the cockpit.
The Osbon incident does expose one of the most critical vulnerabilities of any organization: the inside threat. Governments and corporations have long known that the insider— the person who knows the system, has access, and the capability to wreak havoc—can do the most damage.
But that's also why we have back-up systems. The best security measures are not ones focused on a particular threat, but adaptable to any potential problems. In this case, a secure cockpit door meant to keep an external foe at bay was used to protect against the insider.
For decades, public safety officials and those who fund them have focused on training and equipment that has a dual-use function for any hazard that may come our way. The post-9/11 focus on terrorism, with all the gizmos that were bought in its name, was a moment of frenzy, and sometimes inconsistent with sound public policy. Over time, there was a return to security measures that were adaptable (dual or multiple use) to any threat and more sustainable in a world that has its fair share of both predictable and utterly bizarre events.
The mental condition of airline pilots is a relevant factor in their annual or bi-annual physicals. (FAA rules differ on the number of physicals required, based on the type of plane being flown.) But believing that the system is flawed because it didn't predict the breakdown of one of 450,000 certified pilots is a myopic reaction.
In many ways, though, this kind of incident was anticipated. The system envisions pilot incapacitation—physical, mental, or possibly, as in the campy movie "Snakes on a Plane," a slithering foe.
That is, after all, why we have copilots.