Are We Safer: Part 4 – In Flight Security

Airplane pilotThe primary security responsibility of the air carrier is to keep the airplane and its passengers reasonably safe and protected from unlawful acts of interference. This includes ensuring individuals, their belongings and cargo that are allowed on board by the airline, have been properly screened or inspected by an approved method. This also means ensuring that passengers are safe and secure to the extent possible, when there is an unlawful act while the plane is in-flight.

The Common Strategy (that was Common Knowledge)

Prior to 9/11, the “common strategy,” as it was known, was the universal strategy that told pilots what to do in the event of a hijacking. The common strategy was so “common,” it was published in several open source publications. The strategy was built from decades of hijackers and their desires, along with what was considered the best way to survive a hijacking. In the 700+ hijackings before 9/11, in all but about a dozen instances (that’s less than 0.017%), the hijackers’ desire was to use the plane to escape, or to hold hostages for money, or to use the passengers as political leverage, often to generate publicity for their cause, or in prisoner trade. They generally weren’t interested in killing anyone although it did happen from time to time.

Therefore, the common strategy did not really take into the desires of a hijacker to use the aircraft as a weapons of mass destruction. The common strategy was: notify air traffic control via a radio squawk code (that every pilot is taught when they learn to fly), cooperate with the hijackers and get the plane on the ground. From there, the FBI will take over and it becomes just a waiting game. Most flight crews and flight attendants were not trained in basic self-defense so even if they wanted to fight, on 9/11, they would have been fighting the equivalent of military-trained personnel without the skill set or the mind set to do so. Even Captain John Testrake mentioned this during the 1985 hijacking for TWA Flight 847. He noted that several times they could have gotten the jump on a hijacker, but none of them knew how to shoot an AK-47 and they didn’t have the military training or strength in numbers to shoot their way off the plane and out of Lebanon.

The common strategy for passengers was also to cooperate and not resist. Of course, had we had the information on 9/11 that individuals were intending on using the planes for missiles, passengers and flight crew may have had a different response, like those on United 93 – who did have that information.

Air Marshals

As for air marshals, by 2001 you were more likely to see Brad Pitt on a commercial flight than you were to see an air marshal. The air marshal program started shortly after a hijacking in 1961 when President Kennedy sent US marshals in the skies. The program would go through numerous changes for the next 20 years and by the mid to late 80s every FAA civil aviation security inspector was also a trained air marshal. However, by the 90s they quit making inspectors be air marshals and throughout the 90s the remaining air marshal force was primarily only assigned to international flights. By 2001 there were 33 air marshals left on the payroll. The program was retiring itself.

In-flight operations and protection of the flight deck

It was common before 9/11 that the flight crew was brought coffee and was fed along with the passengers during the flight. Seeing the captain or first officer come out of the cockpit to use the lavatory or chat up the flight attendants was normal behavior. Also, the flight deck door was flimsy at best – in some cases it was harder to get into the lav than it was the cockpit. With the casual attitude about cockpit door integrity and overall lack of structural integrity of the door itself, it was clear that pre 9/11, protecting the cockpit from intrusion was not a priority.

Part of the issue though is that during an aircraft emergency, the flight crew doesn’t want to become trapped behind a steel-tight, securely locked cockpit door. They’d like to get the hell out! Also, adding these doors costs in terms of weight, fuel and money. Statistically, it was more likely the aircraft would be involved in an accident than a hijacking. Plus, even with the door locked, which is often was, a hijacker could force their way in by threatening, beating or killing passengers or flight attendants, which is what they used to do. Therefore, what sense did it make to install all this technology (and weight) if the bad guys were just going to leverage the door open anyway.

Post 9/11

The common strategy has now changed. It’s active resistance – no mystery there right? Active resistance on the part of the flight crew and the passengers. One undeniable truth in aviation is that everyone on the plane can share the same fate – good or bad. Just the fact that bad guys can’t assume that passengers are going to sit down and shut up, adds an advantageous variable. There are also other in-flight security procedures undertaken by flight crews and flight attendants that are classified.

Flight crews and flight attendants are required to undergo self-defense training, which is offered free by the TSA. Plus, through the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, there is a small chance that the flight crew (or at least one member) will be armed. This adds another important variable for the bad guys to consider. Frankly, I wish they had gone the direction United Airlines went (but later shelved) and equipped flight crew and attendants with tasers. At least this adds another variable, provides another defense mechanism into the cockpit and the cabin, and may help with air rage incidents.

Today, the Federal Air Marshal community is not only flush with thousands of members, they also serve as a force multiplier in airports where they conduct patrols, sweeps (known as VIPR – Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response or Playbook) and related investigations. While there certainly aren’t enough FAMs to be on every flight, there are at least enough that it causes bad guys to second guess and account for the presence of a FAM in their planning. Additionally, FAM deployments are coordinated through the TSA’s Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC). TSOC is aware of the presence of armed law enforcement personnel everywhere in the air and can adjust FAM deployments as needed. For example, if five FBI agents are traveling on a flight to attend a conference (or whatever), there’s likely not a need to put FAMs on that flight as well. TSOC did not even exist prior to 9/11.

As for flight deck protection, the doors to the cockpit are reinforced and there are peepholes and in some cases CCTV cameras so that the pilots can see what’s going on inside the cabin. The industry toyed with adding secondary flight deck protection, which is a screen that fits across the front galley area to prevent passengers from rushing the cockpit when the door is opened. But, they’ve settled for putting the drink cart and a phalanx of flight attendants behind it so the pilots can use the lavatory when needed. Food is also not served unless it’s a long-distance flight. If the pilots want a sandwich, they can do what the rest of us do, buy in the terminal and carry it on board.

Overall, there are numerous layers of security that are in place that were not in place nor even a consideration in the mind of the aviation world pre 9/11. In these areas, we are definitely safer.


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