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How protected are cockpits? Aviation specialists weigh in after safety scare on board Horizon Air flight

By DAVID KOENIG | AP Airways Author

The try by an off-duty pilot to close down the engines of a U.S. airliner in midflight highlights the menace that insiders pose to aviation security with their skill to go the place passengers are prohibited.

Occasions just like the one Sunday on a Horizon Air jetliner are very uncommon, however they’re probably devastating.

The captain and co-pilot prevented catastrophe by subduing the off-duty Alaska Airways pilot who — from his excellent vantage level within the cockpit leap seat — tried to chop gasoline to the engines.

“We’re simply fortunate he wasn’t flying the aircraft when he determined to do that. What’s going to cease that?” mentioned Jon Loffi, a longtime legislation enforcement officer who teaches aviation safety at Oklahoma State College and wrote a paper on figuring out insider threats.

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There’s something of a see-something, say-something mindset in aviation, the place workers are inspired to voluntarily report something that raises a security concern, together with suspicious conduct of colleagues. It’s not clear how typically that occurs, nevertheless — if ever.

Joseph David Emerson, left, 44, was arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court docket on Tues., Oct. 24, 2023, in Portland, Ore. Emerson, a pilot, is accused of trying to disable the engines of a aircraft on which he was driving whereas off-duty final Sunday. Emerson pleaded not responsible Tuesday. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian through AP, Pool) 

The pilot who was arrested after Sunday’s flight didn’t seem to boost alarms. Neighbors and fellow members of a flying membership the place he was an teacher described him as an important man who was obsessive about security. The pilots who let him within the cockpit Sunday mentioned they didn’t see something out of the extraordinary earlier than takeoff.

Pilots are required to endure psychological screening as a part of their usually scheduled medical exams. The pilot concerned in Sunday’s incident acquired his most up-to-date examination in September, in line with Federal Aviation Administration information.

Nevertheless, the pilot, Joseph David Emerson, advised police that he had been depressed for about six months — beginning lengthy earlier than his final medical examination — and was having a “nervous breakdown,” in line with an FBI agent’s affidavit.

Throughout FAA-required exams, pilots are purported to undergo an interview and report whether or not they have obtained psychiatric remedy and what medicines they take. The FBI agent’s affidavit didn’t point out whether or not Emerson was being handled for melancholy.

The FAA says its authorized health workers are educated to gauge a pilot’s psychological well being.

Airways ceaselessly conduct their very own interviews that embrace a psychological analysis, “however most of these are to find out whether or not the pilot is an efficient match for the corporate, not whether or not they’re mentally unstable,” mentioned Jeffrey Value, an aviation-security knowledgeable at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

The Horizon shut name might end result within the re-examination of the apply of letting off-duty pilots or different airline workers sit within the cockpit leap seat.

Air journey modified after the 9/11 terror assaults. The Transportation Safety Administration was created to display screen passengers. Cockpit doorways had been hardened. For a time, jump-seat riders had been banned.

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Pilots fought to revive their skill to hitch a journey within the cockpit. A lot of them commute to their jobs, and letting them use the leap seat means the airline doesn’t should bump a passenger off a full flight to make room for a pilot.

“I’m afraid it will put that privilege in jeopardy now,” mentioned Ross Aimer, a retired airline pilot who’s now CEO of an aviation-consulting agency. He mentioned air journey received’t perform — “it would come to a grinding halt” — if off-duty pilots can’t use the leap seat to commute to work.

Airways should approve individuals to take a seat within the leap seat, and pilots wishing to do it should current their credentials to the crew. The captain can deny entry.

“Our flight crew vetting system is simply that — it’s based mostly on belief,” Value mentioned. “We have now to belief personnel to a sure extent, or the system doesn’t work.”

Loffi, the Oklahoma State professor, mentioned banning pilots from the leap seat could be foolish as a result of a pilot intent on crashing the aircraft might merely wait till their flip to function a flight.

Investigators concluded that’s what occurred on board a Germanwings aircraft in 2015. They decided that the co-pilot intentionally crashed the aircraft within the French Alps. The person had been handled for suicidal tendences however didn’t inform the airline.

A FedEx pilot driving on a cargo aircraft tried to kill the crew and crash the aircraft in 1994 however was stopped by the on-duty pilots. In 1987, a fired worker who nonetheless had his safety badge hijacked a Pacific Southwest Airways jet, which crashed in California, killing everybody on board.

On uncommon events, different workers together with a mechanic have been accused of sabotaging planes.

Loffi mentioned pilots may very well be subjected to extra rigorous psychological examinations, as is commonly executed with cops, however that’s not foolproof both.

“I believe we’re doing a fairly good job of managing the insider menace,” he mentioned. “How typically does this occur? Darn seldom. And it’s simply so arduous to foretell this sort of conduct.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg mentioned the FAA will look into “any security concerns” that come out of investigations of the Horizon Air incident.

Safety specialists say it could be troublesome if not not possible to cease each decided prison or terrorist who targets aviation. They are saying there are steps that might make such an assault tougher, however they’d come at a value of money and time.

One chance is to make airline and airport workers undergo the identical kind of safety checkpoints as passengers. Presently a lot of these insiders can go behind safety perimeters with the suitable credentials.

Federal legislation requires that individuals looking for to work in safe areas of an airport should go a criminal-records test and a “safety menace evaluation” that features checking their names in opposition to a terrorism watch listing. The vetting is carried out by the Transportation Safety Administration.

The off-duty Alaska Airways pilot who was arrested Sunday joined Horizon as a primary officer or co-pilot in 2001. In 2012, he went to work at Virgin America, which was purchased by Alaska in 2016. Emerson was promoted to captain in 2019.

Alaska Airways mentioned Emerson met all necessities for medical exams “and at no level had been his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”

Alaska mentioned Tuesday that Emerson was “relieved from all duties” on Sunday, the day of the flight. His subsequent flight had been deliberate for Thursday. The airline indicated it was speaking to the pilots’ union “relating to his employment standing.”

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