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Yesterday, I took an inter-European commercial flight with a popular budget airline. Before take-off, the captain announced that the First Officer would be taking the entire flight today.

During the middle of the approximately 2 hour cruise, the seat-belt sign came on. The flight attendant, who was next to me at the time, quickly turned to look at the front of the cabin.

The captain came out of the cockpit, a flight attendant took his place and locked the door behind him, he spoke over the PA system and asked everyone to fasten their seat-belts. A couple of people stayed up and he firmly told them, again over the PA, to sit down and fasten their seat belts.

Despite largely overcoming my fear of flying recently, I was slightly alarmed at this point, so I asked the flight attendant if we were expecting some turbulence. He told me that no, we weren't and that the seat-belt was only because the captain needed to use the restroom.

Sure enough the captain used the restroom, came out, re-entered the cockpit and a few minutes later turned the light off.

My question - is this standard procedure or is it likely the flight attendant was giving me the 'passenger friendly' version of the story? I have since wondered if it was the FOs first 'solo' flight and if that might have been related.

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    $\begingroup$ You've asked those with the answer, and the answer given seems logical for the captain's safety. What else is there? Why wouldn't it be standard for that airline? If it is passenger experience, i.e., is it common, then IMHO that's a question for Travel.SE. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 May 13 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 I want to know if this is the normal procedure for commercial airlines. It's a simple question I suppose, I'm just curious. $\endgroup$ – Cloud May 13 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ "the captain announced that the First Officer would be taking the entire flight" That would hardly be unusual. "wondered if it was the FOs first 'solo' flight" Not sure what you mean by "solo" here, but if you mean in the sense of flying the entire time without assistance, as in the typical one-pilot-certified GA aircraft, then definitely no. That type of flying doesn't exist in large jet passenger operations, possibly short of some very specific emergency situations (see for example British Airways 5390). $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 13 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ @aCVn Meh, who knows - I thought maybe he was taking the flight unaided either to improve his skills or just for fun / to relieve boredom or the captain was tired. $\endgroup$ – Cloud May 13 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud Virtually all airliners are multi-crew airplanes, meaning that at least the required number of crew (typically 2 pilots these days, but also included flight engineer and/or navigator in the past) must be on duty. Typically, though, the work is divided between "pilot flying" (the one actually manipulating the flight controls) and "pilot-not-flying" (who is reading checklists, working radios, etc.) It's normal for the Captain and FO to alternate segments for who is PF and who is PNF, particularly on short-haul flights. On your flight, the FO was PF. $\endgroup$ – reirab May 13 at 19:00
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In the US they do very similar theater when a pilot needs to relieve himself. There is an announcement that nobody is allowed to come forward, and grim looking flight attendants are blocking the aisles with coffee trolleys. The details surely depend on the airline.

Each of these procedures goes back to some bad incident. The cockpit doors are locked since 9/11. Since Germanwings 9525 (PIC on toilet, co-pilot had a death wish, cockpit door locked), a flight attendant has to replace the pilot in the cockpit. I'm not sure if there was an incident calling for body-guarding a pilot outside of the cockpit, but maybe someone can comment.

Even though it is much more likely to get killed by your angry spouse or just falling down the stairs at home, security procedure theater is in fashion, and it is just getting worse and worse. Yes, it is very plausible that the seat-belt sign activation in your flight was standard procedure to ensure that the PIC could pee in peace.

enter image description here

This photo of Thomas Cook Airlines (UK) is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Some similar reports found in the depth of the internet:

Noticed this last night on a Ryanair flight.

Internal phone call to stewardess was then followed by the fasten seat belt sign going on. We were forced to sit down with a by then crying baby (who had been just about dozing off being rocked whilst standing up) Once we were all sat down cockpit door opens, one of the pilots exits and was replaced by an air hostess in the cockpit. He visits the loo, comes back out, rings in, door opens, swaps with the air hostess and then the lights go back off. Not a hint of turbulence during the time period involved. [...]

In the middle of a flight today from LAX-ORD, the seat belt sign was turned on and the pilot or co-pilot came out of the cockpit to use the bathroom. As soon as the pilot went back into the cockpit, the seat belt sign was turned off. It was perfectly smooth throughout this portion of the flight, so it was obvious that the seat belt sign was turned on just for the pilot to use the facilities. [...]

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    $\begingroup$ PIP has just gotten a new meaning... $\endgroup$ – Arsenal May 13 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ I've never seen an airline in the US turn the seat-belt sign on in such situations. Blocking the forward galley, yes, but never "the entire plane must sit down until the captain's done with the restroom." $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton May 13 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ This is a truly comical answer. Two people in the cockpit rule has been around worldwide since well before Germanwings, and there have been plenty of incidents of people trying to jump the cockpit during events that require opening the cockpit door (meals, water, bathroom break on a long flight, etc.) Literally nobody cares about angry spouses or stairs when combing a hillside for human remains. $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez May 14 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ @JuanJimenez May I take that as a compliment? 2 ppl rule existed before GW9525 in the US, but not in the EU. (And user71659 is right that most if not all EU airlines have abandoned it during 2017-18). My point about the angry spouses is that our perception of risk and death cause probabilities is very skewed. IMHO we should care much less about terrorism, and much more about more probable problems. IMHO the locked cockpit door creates much more threats than it prevents. $\endgroup$ – bogl May 14 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ I'd hesitate to call this "security theatre". Unlike e.g. banning liquids and other very narrow defences that are easily worked around and waste huge amounts of time and resources, this seems like a reasonable (if heavy-handed) procedure to effectively mitigate plausible but unlikely threats to the safety of the flight. It's not like it slows anyone down in the big picture; the plane still arrives at the same time, and it doesn't add extra weight or cost to anything. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes May 15 at 8:23
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This is standard procedure when a pilot needs to use the lavatory (bathroom).

  1. The area near the front lavatory is blocked off by cabin crew, so you cannot get into this area.

  2. The pilot unlocks the cockpit door, steps out, and goes into the lav.

  3. a cabin crew member takes his place, and the cockpit door is closed.

  4. reverse steps 1-3.

Why step 1? To avoid a rush on the cockpit by malefactors. This change occurred after 9/11 -- prior to that, "The Book" on dealing with hijackers said to give them cockpit access, because they'd never done anything bad with it.

Why step 3? So the remaining pilot is not alone in the cockpit. In some airlines, this has been standard practice for years, because of fear of accidents suspected to be solo pilots making a horrible mistake. This was strongly disputed by the unions and doubters, and there wasn't data-recorder data. There was after a burst of them: 2013 LAM 470 (data recovered), 2014 Malaysian 370 (suspected; no data) and 2015 Germanwings 9525 (data recovered). Nobody could deny it anymore, and everyone applied the rule.

Interestingly, Tom Clancy predicted both 9/11 and the emotionally distraught solo pilot, in his 1994 book Debt of Honor.

By the way, the reason the copilot took the flight was that he needs a certain number of takeoffs, landings and hours of flight to keep his skills up.

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Airlines are free to add any safety procedures they deem necessary for safety-of-flight situations. If that is what they did, it's likely standard procedure for that airline.

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A couple of years ago, I witnessed the same 'procedure' but without as much of the 'theater':

During a very smooth flight, the 'fasten seatbelts' lights went on, people got to their seats, and a couple of minutes later, while I was still wondering why we should secure ourselves in the seats mid-flight in perfect weather conditions, the cockpit door opened and a pilot went straight to the lavatory. Sure enough, shortly after he was back in the cockpit, the seatbelt lights turned off.

I thought of it as a rather elegant, unspectacular way to make sure the restrooms are vacant before the pilot leaves the cockpit. I pictured the alternative of the pilot having to stand in front of the lavatory door, waiting for 10 minutes for the old lady to fix her make-up, and concluded that I prefer the pilot to be in the cockpit instead of standing there waiting for the lavatory to become vacant.

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Crews usually work together for several days as a unit, and the CA and FO usually alternate flying each leg. This allows each to stay current and for the FO's skills to grow through critique by the CA and by observing the CA, depending on whose leg it is. In the event of emergency, though, the CA will usually take over.

Part of the reason the FO is there is to handle things if the CA is somehow incapacitated, so he is necessarily fully qualified to fly the plane alone. However, for security and safety reasons, both pilots are required to remain in the cockpit except during brief periods during cruise, such as the one you describe.

It is remotely possible that it was the FO's first revenue flight in type; after all, everyone has a first day at any new job. But there is nothing in your story that would indicate that was true in this case. It just sounds like the CA needed to use the restroom, nothing more complicated than that.

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