Pilot Bathroom Breaks: The Latest Air-Safety Issue?

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In just three seconds, a hijacker could take over a plane. How? By waiting for the pilot to go to the bathroom.

Unlike recent airline passengers like actor Gerard Depardieu and U.S. ski team member Robert Vietze, pilots use the restroom when they have to relieve themselves. Seems simple enough. But the problem is that an innocent trip to the loo could spell disaster if a terrorist happens to be on board and waiting for the right opportunity. In a report this week, The Atlantic noted that the FAA has been aware of this cockpit vulnerability for years.

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Although cockpit doors are reinforced, when they are open, there’s nothing between a perpetrator and control of the plane. This has prompted many in the airline industry to call for the implementation of installed physical secondary barriers (IPSBs), which are retractable fence-like devices to separate the cabin from the cockpit. Think of the IPSBs like baby gates that prevent children from falling down stairs. Instead, these barriers could potentially save hundreds of lives in the event of a plane hijacking.

While FAA spokewoman Alison Duquette told The Atlantic that “right now, we don’t see a need for [the barriers],” the report cites passenger complaints — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — about cockpit doors being opened frequently or being left open for long periods of time during flight:

On April 28, 2007, a passenger flying from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to San Diego filed a complaint saying that the cockpit door was open for five minutes mid-flight, according to TSA records.

More recently, on May 3, 2010, a passenger flying between Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis said the cockpit door was opened a minimum of five times during the flight.

The FAA says that security measures already in place are sufficient enough to prevent breaches of plane cockpits. And though a long-term FAA shutdown was averted earlier this month, the department still has significant fiscal issues to address, making the cost of the IPSBs — $5,000 to $10,000 — prohibitively high.

See the full Atlantic report here.

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Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero or on Tumblr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.