Bill Fink

The Federal Aviation Administration has officially proposed a rule requiring commercial airplanes to have a secondary flight deck barrier to improve safety for pilots in the cockpit.

“Flight crews keep us safe when we travel to visit loved ones, explore new places and conduct business. They, too, deserve to be protected, and this rulemaking is an important step forward,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a Wednesday statement announcing the move.

The secondary flight deck barrier would prevent unauthorized intrusion when the cockpit door is open — for times such as when a pilot exits to use a bathroom, or has food or drinks delivered into the flight deck.

The proposed rule would require manufacturers to install a secondary barrier for commercial airlines manufactured beginning two years after the rule’s approval. The regulation would take effect following a 60-day public commenting period and formal approval.

Guidelines and rules for a secondary barrier have long been in the works; the FAA issued guidance as far back as 2007 for pilot safety procedures to be used when the main flight deck door is opened.

After the 9/11 attacks, the FAA required flight deck doors to be strengthened and secured; the administration put policies in place to ensure the door is locked at all times — except when a pilot needs to exit or when the flight crew needs to enter.

Although the flight deck door is only open for mere moments during a flight, these transition times create a risk of unauthorized intrusion. Flight crews often implement ad hoc solutions, using food and beverage carts or other objects as temporary secondary barriers during those times.

For pilots, this rule proposal is long overdue. “I am pleased that the FAA has finally taken the first step toward addressing this vulnerability after years of delay—delays caused by airline opposition and that have resulted in thousands of planes coming into service since 2001 without this critical security enhancement,” Air Line Pilots Association President Joe DePete said in a statement.

The pilots association is lobbying for Congress to also require existing planes be retrofitted with a similar barrier system. This proposal, the Saracini Enhanced Aviation Act, is currently before Congress.

While the exact nature of the secondary barrier is still being determined, the goal is to “have an installed physical secondary barrier that protects the flight deck from unauthorized intrusion when the flight deck door is opened,” according to the FAA rule proposal.

However, the barrier wouldn’t be just a solid door. It would “still permit line-of-sight visibility between the flight deck door and the cabin” for safety and communication purposes. The barrier rule would come with associated safety process requirements regarding how flight crews would use it.

Regardless of barrier specifics, stakeholders agree that the additional requirement is a necessary safety improvement for commercial aircraft crews and passengers. “Each additional layer of safety matters. Protecting flight crews helps keep our system the safest in the world,” Billy Nolen, FAA acting administrator, said.