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Pilots' Security Duties Make for Airborne Balancing Act

April 28, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and ROBERT PATRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The MD-88 passenger jetliner was cruising above 25,000 feet but there was no one at the controls.

Preoccupied with protecting the cockpit door while they took turns going to the bathroom, the pilots momentarily forgot the cardinal safety rule that the captain or the co-pilot must be strapped in and in control of the aircraft at all times.

The November incident illustrates an emerging safety issue: The focus on aviation security since Sept. 11 has added new distractions to the already demanding duties of pilots, at times prompting missteps that could compromise a safe flight.

A Times analysis of a NASA database known as the Aviation Safety Reporting System found that reports of security-related problems more than doubled in 2001, rising to 315 from 125. The anonymous reports covered many concerns, including lapses in basic policies and loopholes in airport screening.

The increase reveals a system struggling to adjust to change and points to a need for better security-related training.

"Prior to the terrorist attacks . . . this error would have never happened," wrote the captain of the jetliner that was briefly left pilotless. "But the post-Sept. 11 door-locking device and one bonehead move by a nonthinking pilot, and there you are."

The plane was on autopilot, but an unexpected problem could have sent the pilots scrambling for the controls.

"These are not catastrophic things, but they definitely erode the margin of safety," said Capt. Steve Luckey, security chairman for the Air Line Pilots Assn. "The paradigm of operations has to include security, but we just have to be more diligent and vigilant in guarding against distractions."

The NASA database is intended to serve as an early warning system, spotting trends that could--if overlooked--create safety problems. It provides a candid look inside aviation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

The Times analysis also found that security breaches at airports have created a burden for flight crews already busy attending to dozens of critical details before takeoffs. Pilots reported confrontations with passengers who were able to bring aboard knives, scissors, bullets, handcuffs and even an engine leaking gasoline.

"Pilots have been under a great deal of pressure since Sept. 11, and that alone creates concerns," said aviation safety consultant Barry Schiff, a retired airline captain. "The job isn't what it used to be."

More Procedures, Added Confusion

The largest single category of reports--about one-third of the total--concerned breakdowns in policies and procedures. Most were minor, dealing with such things as a pilot who forgot to complete required paperwork because he was checking on a security matter. Others were more serious.

Mistakes in the air can have drastic consequences, so procedures are gospel in the airline business. Pilots' adherence to prescribed routines for every aspect of a flight is a central article of airline safety programs. This conservative approach is designed to ensure safety through constant attention to detail.

Some of the security procedures grafted on since Sept. 11 have added confusion.

The new rule that requires pilots to remain behind locked cockpit doors during flight sounds simple enough. But carrying it out has led to several glaring mistakes. Pilots trying to coordinate lavatory breaks unwittingly triggered other problems. The MD-88 that was briefly left without a pilot is not the only example.

In an incident shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two pilots of a Boeing 757 had a misunderstanding about the use of a code word. It led Air Force jets to intercept the plane after one of the pilots mistakenly radioed that a hijacking was in progress.

The plane's co-pilot had recently attended a security briefing in which pilots were told they should agree on a "duress word" before either of them left the cockpit in flight. If the pilot who left spoke the duress word over the intercom, the pilot who stayed behind would know there was trouble in the cabin and the cockpit door should stay locked. The idea was to prevent a hijacker from getting into the cockpit by overpowering a pilot on a bathroom break.

The captain had not received the same security briefing, however, and as he left the co-pilot in charge, he thought they were agreeing on a password for him to get back into the cockpit.

When the captain used the duress word to get back inside, the co-pilot immediately alerted ground control of a potential hijacking. Eventually the co-pilot realized the misunderstanding and let the captain back in. But then, ground controllers didn't believe their assurances that everything was all right.

Air traffic control "took a conservative approach and assumed we were a possible hijacked aircraft," the co-pilot wrote. The misunderstanding was resolved after the plane landed in Boston with an F-16 escort and was met by a state police security detail.

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