Two pilots from a major airline were stood down after an incident on a flight led to unnecessary panic with the cabin crew subsequently offered counselling. The problem occurred on a flight between Perth and Auckland on 21 May, when the flight’s first officer was locked out of the cockpit for two minutes, following his return from a rest break.

The captain did not respond to repeated requests to unlock the cockpit door, alarming the first officer and crew. The captain and first officer had apparently had a disagreement earlier that day over a take-off delay.

Following a two minute period of silence from the cockpit the first officer used an alternative method to gain access. “Naturally, cabin crew operating the flight were concerned about the inability to contact the captain and became quite anxious,” said the airline’s operational integrity and safety manager.

After landing, the crew were offered the support of the company’s employee assistance program and both pilots were stood down — the captain for two weeks and the first officer for a week. Counselling and additional training was also given to both the first officer and captain.

The NZ Herald revealed that there was “some tension” between the pilots after a 13-minute delay to the flight’s departure, partly caused by the first officer having to participate in a random drug and alcohol test.

The airline’s operational integrity and safety manager described the incident as “unfortunate” and said “this departure delay frustrated the captain who prides himself on operational efficiency,” adding that “both pilots have learned a valuable lesson around the need to communicate better with peers.”

He said the captain did not respond or unlock the door because he was approaching a navigational waypoint and saw on his monitor a cabin crew member, rather than the first officer, trying to contact him.

The airline provided a report on the incident to the Civil Aviation Authority who expressed satisfaction with the airline’s actions.

But aviation commentator Peter Clark said the incident showed it was time all airlines put a third crew member in the cockpit. “After MH370 there’s definitely questions being asked about whether there should be more than two people on the flight deck.”

Clark said there was no excuse for the captain to not immediately respond to calls, given the MH370 mystery and the fate of other flights, “You can push a button and say ‘I’m busy’ … two minutes is an eternity when people reflect on MH370. The transponder can be turned off, the flight co-ordinates changed, the plane depressurised. It shouldn’t have happened.”

This is a somewhat cautionary tale of how a dispute between colleagues can easily escalate to create wider-reaching issues. The ultimate effect of the disagreement spilled beyond the cockpit, raising concern amongst the cabin crew with the potential to worry passengers and create a possible safety risk.

Matters of this nature do not only point towards the behaviour of the individuals concerned and how they might be equipped to address issues, but also raises questions about the management of those individuals and any conflict between them. It is important for all employers to realise that tensions or clashes within a team may end up impacting on the wider workgroup if left unchecked.

Effective management of individuals and encouraging workers to seek help with communication or conflicts, such as additional training or workplace mediation may help to mitigate risk in this area.

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