Thursday 21 September 2017

It's like your worst nightmare - locked in an airplane restroom. But what if you're the pilot?

What’s the protocol if you’re a pilot and you’re trapped in the lavatory? Don’t laugh. It actually happened last week aboard a Chautauqua Airlines (Delta Connection) regional jet on its way into LaGuardia Airport.

It's like your worst nightmare - locked in an airplane restroom. But what if you're the pilot?

The captain had stepped out to use the toilet, leaving the first officer and flight attendant in the cockpit. (Rules require that a second crew member always be present in the cockpit; in this case that meant the plane’s sole flight attendant.) When the lavatory door jammed, he was unable to extricate himself for several minutes.

Sorry, there’s no training or checklists for this one. It comes down to common sense. If the door really is stuck, you break out of there. The doors are pretty flimsy; it shouldn’t be difficult.

And that is what the Chautauqua captain eventually did.

The problem was, a passenger had gone and knocked on the cockpit door, attempting to explain to the first officer and flight attendant what was happening. Presumably he was just trying to help out. The captain would not have asked him to do this, since obviously his colleagues in the cockpit weren’t going to take the man’s word for what was happening. A passenger in any way contacting the cockpit was bound to trigger an unnecessary sequence of events.

Which is exactly what happened. An emergency was declared, fighter jets summoned — the whole post-9/11 flurry.

Complicating things, the man reportedly spoke with a thick foreign accent, described in some reports as “Middle Eastern,” whatever that means exactly. Now, as a nation we’ve been overreacting to people’s skin color, to their clothes and to the sounds of their voices ever since the attacks of 2001, and nobody has been more critical of this than me. Would things have escalated the same way, we wonder, had the man talked like he was from Texas or New Jersey?

Maybe not. However, all things considered, putting ourselves in the position of this first officer and flight attendant, we need to be sympathetic. The man’s accent was a factor.

Soon enough the captain managed to free himself from the W.C. and was back in the cockpit. The crew then radioed ahead that everything was resolved. “There is no issue, no threat,” reported the crew to air traffic control.

Well-handled, if you ask me. And that should have been the end of it. This story should never have been in the news.

On the other hand, is it any surprise that it was?