We take a look at the regulations surrounding pilots stepping out of the flight deck while flying.
When an aircraft is airborne, virtually everything a pilot needs to do can be done from the cockpit. Nevertheless, there are other reasons why a pilot may want to leave the flight deck mid-flight, the most common of which is for a bathroom break.
Regulations relating to cockpit door safety have significantly changed after major events like the 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the 2015 intentional crash of a Germanwings Airbus A320 into the French alps. Legislators take their learnings from such incidents and amend the rules accordingly.
Let’s take a look at how the current regulations deal with the issue of pilots leaving the cockpit in-flight.
Leaving the cockpit
Pilots are generally free to leave the cockpit during the cruise phase of flight. This can be to make a trip to the restroom, check on certain things in the passenger cabins, or to simply stretch their legs.
However, regulations state that only one pilot can leave the flight deck at a time and only if there is another crew member present. That means for a flight crew that only consists of a captain and a first officer, if any one of the pilots wanting to leave the cockpit will have to call in a flight attendant. The need for a flight attendant is eliminated if a flight engineer is already present on the flight deck. Simply put, there must be at least two people in the cockpit at all times when the aircraft is airborne.
Indeed, when flying below 10,000 ft, the sterile cockpit rule applies, which prohibits all unnecessary conversation and activities. This includes leaving the cockpit for reasons other than absolutely necessary. That said, a pilot can still leave the flight deck to have a first-hand look at certain aircraft areas that are only visible from the passenger cabins.
How 9/11 changed cockpit safety
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have had a lasting impact on aviation security. They proved that even commercial airplanes could be deadly weapons if slipping into the wrong hands. The biggest change that directly resulted from the 2001 terrorist attacks was related to cockpit access. Before the incident, regulations relating to access to flight decks were pretty lenient. Pilots were free to bring passengers and children into the cockpit during pretty much any phase of flight.
Post the attacks, access to cockpits was limited to certain authorized personnel only. Moreover, regulations mandated stronger and more durable cockpit doors which were to be kept locked at all times, even when a pilot is out on a restroom break.
Impenetrable doors and no way to access the cockpit from outside indirectly led to the Germanwings crash in 2015, where a mentally disturbed first officer deliberately flew an A320 into a mountain when the captain was out of the cockpit on a bathroom break. The first officer locked the cockpit door from inside, leaving no way for the captain to force his way in. This led to another rule change, mandating at least two people in the flight deck at all times.
Source: Simple Flying