Give the crew the key

Story highlights

  • Akhil Amar: When a leader is irrational or incapacitated, we need an override mechanism
  • Amar: Airlines could learn from system used in U.S. Constitution to replace disabled president

Akhil Reed Amar is a professor of constitutional law at Yale University and the author of "The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of Our Constitutional Republic." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In some ways, America's president pilots our ship of state as a captain pilots a jumbo jet, and this analogy suggests one possible way to avoid a repeat of the Germanwings massacre: Give the plane's flight crew certain powers akin to those given to America's Cabinet in the rare and terrifying situation when the president and vice president are at swords' point.

Some background. Both presidents and plane captains must be shielded from lunatics and terrorists. This is why airlines across the world hardened cockpit doors after 9/11 and why Americans of all stripes are outraged by stories that the Secret Service on several occasions has failed to maintain proper security at the White House.
Akhil Amar
Both presidents and plane captains are human, and subject to all the frailties of humans, from temporary disabilities created by bathroom breaks (for pilots) and scheduled surgeries (for presidents) to sudden death. Transitions in both the Oval Office and the cockpit should be made as smooth as possible. Hence the need for a vice president at the ready, able to take over at a moment's notice. The obvious aviation analogy here is the second pilot in the cockpit.
    In case of sudden death, the vice president or co-pilot simply takes over immediately. In case of a temporary disability -- say, a scheduled surgery under general anesthesia -- the president can hand over control to the vice president and then take back control when the disability ends. It is exactly what happened when President George W. Bush underwent planned colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007.
    On both occasions, Bush handed the tiller to his trusted co-pilot, Dick Cheney, and then resumed control when ready, under rules clearly laid out by the Constitution's 25th Amendment -- an amendment drafted and ratified after the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
    But what happens if a president is unable to predict his own future disability, or unable to recognize a genuine disability when it arises? The 25th Amendment allows the vice president to take over control in this situation, but to do so, the vice president needs the support of a majority of Cabinet officers -- officials previously appointed by the president himself and thus unlikely to support any inappropriate vice presidential power grab. On a jumbo jet, a co-pilot may likewise take over in certain situations. But current airplane architecture fails to use the crew in the optimal way.
    When one officer has barricaded himself in the cockpit and the other officer is banging on the door demanding entry, current airplane design enables the man in the cockpit unilaterally to block the demand for entrance with the flick of a switch. Think of this as an absolute veto. (Some airlines get around the problem with a rule that a flight attendant must replace a pilot so that there will always be at least two people in the cockpit.)
    But suppose instead that airlines were to borrow sensibly a page from America's Constitution. The man in the cockpit could temporarily block entrance, but this veto could be overridden if -- and only if -- the door-banging officer is backed by a majority of the flight attendants.
    The need for some sort of secure cockpit lock is obvious. Perhaps the officer banging on the door has gone mad, or is being held hostage at knifepoint, or is a terrorist mole. But the need for an override is also obvious. Perhaps the man in the cockpit is the bad guy.
    And just as America's Cabinet officers are well-positioned to decide any dispute between a president and vice president wrestling over the key to the Oval Office, so too with an airplane's crew: The cockpit lock button could be electronically overridden whenever a majority of flight attendants punched in their own individual passcodes in sequence on a keypad somewhere outside the cockpit door.
    This proposed technological fix will not prevent all future tragedies. No human system is foolproof. But giving the crew a collective key brings more human minds into the equation -- as does the 25th Amendment's rule empowering the Cabinet to resolve certain terrifying disputes at the highest level of executive power. On planes, as in a constitutional democracy, there is often safety in numbers.