Secure cockpits put passengers at risk, warn pilots

War on Terrorism: Aviation
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The pilots' union is criticising a security measure being introduced by Virgin Atlantic and BA in response to the 11 September terrorist attacks, claiming it threatens the safety of passengers.

The British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) said yesterday that reinforced doors, which could be deadlocked from the inside to prevent passengers from storming the flight deck, carried a much higher risk to aviation safety than did hijackers. The union said cabin crew, trained to check regularly on the welfare of the pilots, would be powerless to help if those on the flight deck became incapacitated at the same time.

The reinforced doors have been approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, which said it had carefully balanced safety against security concerns. Virgin Atlantic said the chance of three flight crew becoming incapacitated at the same time from breathing in fumes or other potential problems was "infinitesimal".

The bullet-proof door was introduced to the first of the 32 Virgin Atlantic jets, renamed the Spirit of New York, as part of a package of measures intended to improve security. The doors are also heat-proof and shock-proof with digital locks. Security cameras have also been fitted to try to ensure that no hijacker can get on to the flight deck.

A second armour-plated door creating a double barrier should be installed within three months on all of the jets, Sir Richard Branson, the company's chairman, said. It is also introducing more security checks on the ground. Sir Richard said: "It's obviously a pity that it is necessary because in the past visits from children to the flight deck was very much part of the travelling experience, but something had to change after 11 September.

"The most important thing is that people feel 100 per cent safe about travelling."

BA will reinforce its cockpit doors on the flight decks of its 340 aircraft as part of a £1m programme, and should complete work on the first aircraft tomorrow. The company claimed it had been in constant touch with Balpa officials who had supported the changes.

But Christopher Darke, the Balpa general secretary, said deadlock doors that flight crew could not unlock from their normal flight positions were "ill-considered, ill-conceived and potentially dangerous.

"Deadlocks will put passengers in more, not less danger," he said. "You cannot turn the cockpit, which is the nerve centre of a complex environment, into a fortress."