Jul 6, 2014

What was Air NZ thinking when it confirmed security flaw in 777s?

It's a holiday weekend in the US and Sunday in the antipodes but the consequences of the PR blunder at Air New Zealand in revealing that locked doors on 777 cockpits can be readily bypa

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

It’s a holiday weekend in the US and Sunday in the antipodes but the consequences of the PR blunder at Air New Zealand in revealing that locked doors on 777 cockpits can be readily bypassed will be immense.

The airline let the secret out in its reponse to a whacko story about a captain locking a co-pilot out of the cockpit for several minutes, revealing that the junior pilot used the ‘alternative’ access route which everyone in the technical media has been at pains not to discuss for years.

The flaw directly compromises the security of the cockpit and critical electronic systems.

The secret had been remarkably well kept, and with a few words, it has been blown.

Assuming the security of 777s from in flight tampering or attack is given the importance with which security issues are treated in the US and including on airliners flying into its airports or even transiting its air space counter measures will need to be put in place urgently.

First up, the alternative access will need to be guarded. Then come the geometrical or physical changes. Serious and overdue steps will have to be taken, since the risks are not predicated on persons carrying anything physically detectable by way of weapons or devices, but knowledge, and the intention to use it.


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32 thoughts on “What was Air NZ thinking when it confirmed security flaw in 777s?

  1. COTOS

    Looks like the Spokesdroid from qantas got a job at airnz pretty quickly.

  2. Glen

    Unless you’re prepared to posit some pretty weird exotica this effectively kills the FC suicide theory. “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable…” etc etc. Not many workable explanations remain.

  3. Mark Skinner

    I am curious. Why was this allowed to continue? If such an obvious flaw was known years ago, why hasn’t Boeing fixed it?

    Maybe the Kiwis are deliberately forcing the issue, so it IS addressed. If so, then their thinking has some virtue.

  4. Nomad

    Now it’s out in the open, can someone tell me how widely known this is? Takes some heat off the MH captain ….

  5. Ben Sandilands

    Air NZ didn’t elaborate as to which alternative method they were referring to. But to have publicly acknowledged that there was an alternative was to be seriously irresponsible.

  6. Burton Bickle

    Surely the issue is not whether the cockpit door can be breached by alternative means but the fact that the first officer thought it necessary to do so. Why does this pilot still have a job? Why do we still have pilots? Bring on drone airliners, I say. This incident, MH370, ET702 where the first officer locked his captain out of the cockpit and hijacked his own plane to Geneva should convince us the the greatest threat to safety and security sits in the cockpit not the cabin or in the plane systems. Would OZ214 have hit the wall at SFO if it had been flown by a properly supervised call-pilot in Bangalore or Manila? Unlikely I think. The sooner we get these incompetent, suicidal, prima-dona pilots out of commercial aviation the better.

    Didn’t Boeing recently put in a patent for a windowless flight deck? Surely a first move and not before time.

  7. Phil Scott

    If there’s a “backdoor” method of opening the door, it would be folly to believe that the Bad Guys don’t already know ALL about it — any security expert could explain that “security by obscurity” is no security at all. I’d recommend to look up the famous, and very relevant, quote from “Locks and Safes: The Construction of Locks” by A.C Hobbs (Charles Tomlinson, ed.), 1853, where this was first addressed

  8. Rufus

    Agree with Phil. Anything widely known among experts and commentators is going to be known to anyone with an interest in finding out. I am neither expert nor commentator, but had an idea as to what this might be as soon as I read the article – which the commentary above seems to confirm.

  9. johnb78

    FWIW the flaw in question was explained in detail in a Daily Mail article in March, in the early days of MH370 speculation frenzy.

  10. malcolmdbmunro

    Once again a truly excellent comment from you Ben.

    Two things strike this reader.

    The Malaysian government and MAS and a whole host of others connected with the loss and search for MH337 knew and know of the flaw on the 777. Many of us following this story and many in the public at large have been convinced that information connected to the disappearance of the airplane was and is being withheld. With this revelation a chink in the wall of impenetrability has been breached, the curtain of silence has lifted slightly, the many things hinted at and hastily withdrawn might, over coming weeks, begin to make sense. Certainly not much has made sense so far.

    One has to wonder, idly perhaps, what other flaws on Airbuses and Boeings are well known but kept from the flying public. The smug publication of reports by Airbus and others of how the safety of generations of jets has improved over the decades is based largely upon layers and layers of increasing sophistication. These layers remove us further and further from reality. Airbus recognized this recently with their call for pilots to have more manual training.

    I am reminded of the Eagle comic strip of many years ago. Anastasia, the space craft in which Dan Dare and Digby were traveling, suffered a disabling loss, the cause of which I don’t recall. Normal communications were rendered impossible. Digby operated a breaker switch to send an SOS by Morse code.

  11. Going Boeing

    No, the flight deck door doesn’t have an alternative way to be opened unless the person on the flight deck allows it to be so. Stupid comments from the stupid people here.

  12. joe airline pilot

    This has to be the most ill informed article that I’ve ever read. Is there no one that could have been asked about the operation of a cockpit door, so as to avoid the embarrassment of having ones name to this nonsense article.

  13. Ben Sandilands

    Joe and others,

    It about the unsecured electronics bay. If you are unfamiliar with 777s I can understand your concerns. Boeing is now offering a costly optional fix according to 777 pilots, but which is expected to be mandated.

    Read the earlier reports about the apparent tampering with the electricals one hour after the loss of the transponder.

    There is more detail out there about what can be done inside that bay, but I don’t think it has reached the general media, and I don’t intend to be first either.

    It is irresponsible for Air NZ to even state publicly that there is an alternative access to the cockpit, which was resorted to because the captain refused access to the first officer.

    Now, think about what is involved in the situation described by the airline.

    The who-did-what-and-why of MH370 hasn’t been solved. But some more difficult questions are being posed, as they should be.

    The last thing the media ought to do is to categorically blame various parties for anything that happened to MH370 at this stage. Likewise the flying community.

  14. Boston the Dog

    Ben, this is hysterical muck-raking and surprising. Not your normal high standard. “Digger” (on a related post) and “Going Boeing” above have hinted at the truth on this matter.

    We can only speculate at what happened on the ANZ flight. Was the Captain looking after other things or was he being petulant? Who knows? But if he was getting his wee wee in a froth about a 13 minute delay in Perth due to a random drug test, as reported, this is a pilot who needs to seriously revisit his priorities.

    As for ANZ breeching security “secrets” – nyet!

  15. Ben Sandilands


    I’m surprised that you don’t understand that when the public are told that cockpits are secure, but an airline says they aren’t, this isn’t serious.

    It’s got nothing to do with hysterics, apart from on the part of some readers. Had the airline not said what it said the story might not have made the cut.

    PS If one wants hysterics, a read of a well known technical pilot forum on this topic might prove embarrassing.

  16. joe airline pilot

    “I’m surprised that you don’t understand that when the public are told that cockpits are secure, but an airline says they aren’t, this isn’t serious.”

    Only that’s not what the airline has said at all.

    You’ve effectively grabbed an elephant by the tail, called it a snake, and made up a story to fit.

  17. Ben Sandilands


    If all you can do is complain about the messenger rather than the message you have a problem.

  18. Glen

    Oh dear … so what actually happens when you pull that cockpit door CB? Joe, Boston … you do actually know, do you?

  19. Digger

    SFA Glen. No more of an issue than if the power was interrupted by other means. Provided the door is locked. But hey I am only sitting 2′ in front of a Boeing strengthened door as I write this, so what would I know.

  20. joe airline pilot

    Ben I’m clearly complaining about the message. Please go and do some actual research on cockpit doors. There are people here who believe everything that they read.

  21. Ben Sandilands


    You haven’t answered the pertinent question, what happens when the relevant CBs are pulled in the insecure location?

    I’ve had presentation material on the risk this poses for several years. The potential for mischief was obvious, and now an airline goes and says there is an alternative way of accessing a locked cockpit. How incredibly stupid and irresponsible was that.

    The story was about about the folly in the messaging, drawing attention to something no-one in the technical media ever wanted to acknowledge.

    I can’t quite understand where you are coming from on this. But I can tell you where I’m coming from which is that security holes should be fixed before they get pointed to by airlines.

  22. BugSmasher

    I think anyone who knows a little bit about aeroplanes or aviation is quite aware that security is a facade carefully constructed for public consumption. It makes it look like the authorities are ‘doing something’ and the public feel better about getting on a machine that is quite an unnatural and somewhat scary environment.

    Anyone who seriously wants to get in is going to find a way.

  23. discus

    Ben what C/Bs?
    If you mean the ones for the door it won’t matter. All of the cockpit doors I have dealt with have a mechanical bolt that is the last resort. The terror guys can have all the right codes but they aint getting in.

    All of the doors I know of have an entry method from the cabin to the cockpit. That is no secret or flaw. That method does however have a time delay. The pilot can deny entry if he/she chooses. They would use door cameras or even a peep-hole to see what is going on & who who is near the door.

    There must be an alternate method as it is pretty easy to get locked out of the cockpit or if in flight have a pilot flying become debilitated at the yoke and the other one locked out for for good. That would be the height of dumb design.

    People lock themselves out of the cockpit on the ground on occasions when door security is left active. You would look like a complete wally if there was no alternative.

    So if there is a flaw I cannot see it.

    Yes there is a way to gain entry but the person in the cockpit always has the choice of who gets in and when.

    In this case the F/O has likely entered the right code to gain entry, the skipper sees who is trying to enter, has not “denied” entry, the time delay expires, door opens.

  24. Potsie Weber


    Without going into specifics, I can tell you there is both an electrical and mechanical system in place to ensure security of the door, even if CB’s are pulled in the EE bay. Airlines have procedures in place to deal with this and the pilots will be aware of any electrical interruption to the door lock. In my airline, the cockpit door electrical lock can be a permissible MEL item with specific procedures in place.

    I don’t think the ANZ case in anyway suggests the FO was down the EE bay pulling circuit breakers.

    There are procedures and various levels of initiating access. But one thing is certain, if the guy in cockpit wants to keep someone out, he can do it.

  25. George Glass

    Ben, this one occasion where you can’t be told the exact detail. Suffice it to say that there is an alternate method to enter the cockpit but it requires co-operation on the cockpit side. Hence it IS secure. Denying ALL access requires deliberate action on the cockpit side.

  26. Accountant

    Absolute security is a fantasy. Not just in aeroplanes, but anywhere else in the world as well. Confining it to planes though. So if there’s an alternative way of accessing the cockpit, terrorists may exploit it, agreed. But if there’s not, and the captain is suicidal and locks the first officer out, then nothing can stop him. So we’re all dead anyway. As for robot planes, where the computer has total control. “Open the podbay door Hal” “I,m sorry Dave, I can’t do that”

  27. Ben Sandilands

    The previous time I posted on insecure cockpit doors I identified a type of jet used in Australia in which the entire door, including the locking mechanism, could be removed or torn down by manipulating the panel without the need for any special tools.

    That was an irresponsible post, quoting an irresponsible source, and after a call from a certain place I immediately removed the post.

    (If anyone identifies the type the comment will be removed.)

    I similarly think Air NZ was irresponsible in saying, and note the words, that access was achieved by an alternative means. I don’t think they were referring to a change of mind by the captain, and clearly whatever it was that was done, the physical locking mechanism was either irrelevant from being not slotted into place or otherwise overcome.

    But let’s think about the implications of the insecure bay in the case of 777s, which is a problem otherwise it would be being fixed, in relation to MH370 or a ‘targeted’ flight.

    There are any number of things can be done by abusing that access, including perhaps plugging in or adding to the functions in the bay in a manner in which a struggle for control might ensue. One that could even see the jet fly a puzzling course between points that seem illogical over the Andaman Sea, before some other perhaps unintended consequence sees it turn south and fly for hours until fuel is exhausted over the SW Indian Ocean.

    This is only speculation. But speculation has fallen on the unsecured bay, and the electrical ‘event’ that the investigation says appears to have occurred one hour after the loss of the ATC transponder.

  28. Boston the Dog


    Anybody who thinks they are TOTALLY secure in any type of public transport is simply naïve. All transport providers can do is MINIMISE the risk. This is what the aviation industry does. So does the NSW State Government. Ever seen the guards on the Harbour Bridge?

    But any security measure never comes with a guarantee. Transport security is a bit like locking your car. It makes it less attractive to steal than one that is not.

    But there is no such thing as TOTAL security. “Be alert, not alarmed” probably is the best strategy, coupled with underlying security processes.

    What I am annoyed at is the apparent lack of knowledge from some (most?) of the contributors above. It is obvious just who is, or has been, in the aviation industry. They are the ones who have made considered, conservative statements. They are probably not in a position where they can explain the full possible circumstances of some kind of “alternate procedure”, if indeed one exists. (And I don’t admit to being in the industry!)

    Yes the ANZ spokesperson probably could have done better, but it will make very little difference in the long run. That person’s contribution to the downfall of aviation security will probably be bugger-all. But it may underline the need for some kind of knowledge/feel for the industry they are speaking for. Unfortunately they are not hired with that in mind.

    May I finish with a snippet somebody emailed me. It is an “alternative” version of what happened and probably reflects our modern communicative world:

    The “Based on True Story” Australian media, version:

    F/O leaves the Flight Deck for a leak. Passengers report hearing a “loud bang” before toilet door is opened and the F/O emerges. Smoke may or may not have been seen in the cabin. Eyewitnesses on the ground tell of seeing the aircraft diving out of control toward the ground with flames coming from the left and/or right engine(s). Tenders are submitted for aviation “experts” to provide possible doomsday scenarios of what might have happened during the 2 minutes the F/O is off the flight deck whinging to the cabin crew about the peanut he’s been rostered to fly with. The most idiotic and implausible sequence of events of what may have happened will win the gong and 15 minutes of fame. Knee-jerk “solutions” to this outrageous “problem” are proposed within 15 milliseconds of the main gear touching down (no de-rotate to embarrass oneself on this “old technology”). A whole bunch more Aviation Science Degree graduates get employed by airlines around the world to investigate this “problem”, and in the process get to see a real live aircraft for the first time, (“Wow the flight deck sure is smaller than it looks in the photos!”) The security department bloats up yet another 10%. Airlines lose more money. The two people involved are seen a month, later down at the bar laughing over a beer, having now realized that he called for “Flaps 2” and not “F$%K You!”. The cabin crew continue on their indefinite “trauma counseling”, the Head Purser finally ends up having an affair with the company psychologist, having known each other from the same hockey team all those years before.

    Pure Gold.

  29. Glen

    This just gets weirder and weirder; your bizarre little anecdote notwithstanding. Where does it say that those “not in the industry” are banned from comment? And why would that be … to preserve industry group-think? Like, say, that self-serving line that “there is no such thing as total security”. Well d’oh; hadn’t noticed; doesn’t apply anywhere else, etc etc. So let’s see … we have an avionics bay that is accessible from the passenger cabin via a hatch with no physical security of any kind, just a cute note reminding users to turn out the lights when done! Down there one can presumably create all manner of havoc; and not just electrical and electronic. A big O2 bottle and flimsy flexible hoses can be dastardly tools. Yet we’re told to move on, nothing to see, leave it to the pros. Fantastic.

  30. Boston the Dog

    “Where does it say that those “not in the industry” are banned from comment?”

    Didn’t say that Glen. Didn’t even imply it.

    I have answered your earlier enquiry in post #18 in the text above. You obviously didn’t see it. It follows that I cannot be accused of “preserving industry group think”.

    Nowhere have I implied that readers should, “move on, nothing to see, leave it to the pros”. Fantastic indeed!

  31. joe airline pilot

    “I don’t think they were referring to a change of mind by the captain…”

    That’s exactly what they were doing. I think that what the ANZ spokesperson really meant was that the FO used an alternative means to CONTACT the cockpit rather than ACCESS. To be clear there is no way of gaining access to a flight deck if a Pilot refuses access!

  32. Paulg

    The EEbay issue is hardly a secret. I have read blogs and watched a UTube video in the past few months.

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