An Air New Zealand pilot alarmed his flight crew and got himself suspended for two weeks when he locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, then refused to answer the door for two full minutes when the crew tried to get him to open up.
The bizarre and disturbing in-flight dispute happened on a May 21 overnight flight between Perth, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand — a flight scheduled to last six hours and 15 minutes — and resulted in the co-pilot also being suspended while Air New Zealand tried to figure out exactly what happened.
Reportedly, there was “some tension” between the two men entrusted with getting the Air New Zealand flight safely to its destination, stemming from a 15-minute delay in getting the plane off the ground. The delay happened when the co-pilot was temporarily removed from the plane for an unannounced drug and alcohol screening.
“This departure delay frustrated the captain who prides himself on operational efficiency,” said Errol Burtenshaw, Air New Zealand operational integrity and safety manager.
But it wasn’t even the spat between the pilot and co-pilot that had the crew’s nerves on edge. It was the fact that, after the pilot refused to let the co-pilot back from a bathroom break onto the flight deck, he locked the secured, anti-hijacking door and did not answer the crew’s increasingly frantic calls.
The two minutes of silence are an “eternity” on board a flight in mid-air, according to one aviation expert who spoke on background to a New Zealand newspaper
“The captain did not respond or open the door because he was approaching a navigational waypoint and in his cockpit monitor saw a cabin crew member rather than the first officer ringing,” Burtenshaw explained. “The first officer became concerned that the captain did not answer the calls and used an alternative entry method to gain access.”
Burtenshaw did not say exactly what that “alternative entry method” was. Anti-hijack doors are supposed to prevent anyone from entering a flight deck without authorization.
The incident has also raised questions, which have been widely discussed in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airline Flight MH370 disappearance, as to whether flights should require at least two trained flight crew in the cockpit at all times, preventing any one crew member from occupying the cockpit alone.
The co-pilot was slapped with a one-week suspension. Both Air New Zealand pilots have since undergone counseling and have “learned a valuable lesson” about good in-flight communication, Burtenshaw said.