By Jeff Price, Professor MSU Denver and lead author, Practical Aviation Security:

Predicting and Preventing Future Threats

a320 aerobus-281166_1920There have been a lot of stories in the media about this EgyptAir hijacking that “calls into question” airline and airport security in Egypt. But let’s not take our eye off the ball – let’s continue to stay focused on the real threats.

The aviation security system is not meant to stop idiots from making stupid statements on an airplane. While this might have been incredibly inconvenient, and I’m sure very scary for some of the passengers (except for that British guy who got the selfie), at the end of the day it was really just that, an inconvenience. Not a threat to the security of the airplane nor a damnation of the security at the airport.

One way this could actually be a threat is if we let this incident divert our attention from real threats. There is the possibility that terrorists could use this type of incident to draw our focus away on a tactical level, while the real terrorists slips through the system somewhere else. The other way we can turn this into a real threat is by continuing to focus on trying to prevent the next idiot from boarding a plane with a few props to try to hijack it, rather than looking for real threats and real terrorists.

Fake hijackers are a threat the way a bomb threat is a threat – it screws up the system, causes fear and panic and inconvenience, and takes our attention away from real threats.

The ‘bluff’ hijacking has been around since the early 1970s and yes it is difficult to combat, because it’s hard to prevent people from saying stupid things on a plane. Any time you see an air rage incident or someone stands up on a plane and declares their stupidity, you’re seeing the same type of incident.

The question always comes up: How can we prevent this from happening in the future? The answer in this case is: We really don’t. It’s an inconvenience, it’s like asking the police to prevent the next robbery of a convenience store while you happen to be inside. Let’s put you in a convenience store for just a moment to illustrate the point. You’re there, buying whatever it is you’re buying going about your daily life and now it’s disrupted by someone robbing the place. It’s an inconvenience for you and it’s probably scary. But unless people quit stealing from convenience stores these things happen and you may be in a position to actually be there during that time. This is the same case.

The real threat we should be focusing on is aviation insiders. This incident should go down as an interesting and perhaps somewhat entertaining footnote in the annals of aviation security, and it should not divert us from things real threats like what occurred in Brussels recently. Did you notice how fast Brussels was moved out of the news cycle by EgyptAir?

Some questions that have come up:

  • Q: Why did the pilot escape?
  • A: That’s what the pilot is supposed to do. In the history of aviation it’s been a standard since the early 70s, that the pilots should attempt to get out of the plane, effectively grounding the plane. A hijack incident is much easier to handle on the ground then it is in the air, because you just removed tons of variables and as we all saw on 9/11 an airplane on the ground is incapable of smashing into a building.
  • Q: But what about hijackers that can fly the plane?
  • A: What we saw on 9/11 was extraordinarily rare. It is much harder to take off in an airplane and fly it to altitude than it is to simply take it over while it’s in flight. In fact, every new private pilot I know soon takes their relatives or friends up, and when the plane is in a trimmed, straight and level condition, they will let their friends or family take the controls and “fly” the plane for a few minutes. But only a galactic tool would allow that family member to attempt a takeoff or landing. The hijacker/pilots on 9/11, were actually not that good as pilots. With the exception of the pilot that put the plane into the side of the Pentagon, and he ground skipped it at that, none of the hijackers had previous flying experience before they began training for the 9/11 attack.
  • Q: Why was this man allowed to fly when he has a criminal background?
  • A: Having a criminal background, or even being wanted by the law, does not necessarily prevent you from flying. The aviation security system is meant to prevent terrorists from getting on planes, hijacking planes, and bombing planes. It’s not meant to catch every wanted criminal in the world. If we start expanding the scope of aviation security to catch criminals, where does that end? Maybe we should also expand the system to catch all deadbeat dads? Don’t get me wrong, criminals and deadbeat dads, and I put them in the same douche bag category, should be held to account for their crimes, but the aviation security system needs to stay focused on preventing terrorism.
  • Q: What if this had been a real bomb?
  • A: It wasn’t a real bomb. Had this been a real bomb, ideally one of the screening technologies would have detected the device. Or, an individual carrying a real bomb is likely to exhibit certain behaviors that might be detectable by alert security or law enforcement personnel at the airport. If this were a real device, there would likely have been bomb makers involved, handlers for the suicide bomber involved, pre-incident surveillance by others, and a whole cast of characters and pre-incident planning that may have revealed the plot or put this guy on the radar of a law enforcement or intelligence agency prior to him deploying to the airport.
  • Q: What does this say about Egypt’s aviation security in light of the recent Metrojet 9268 downing (alleged to be a bomb) last year?
  • A: It really doesn’t say anything about Egypt’s aviation security other than it’s not designed to catch fake bombs and idiots – which can also can be said of virtually every aviation security system of the world. Since the alleged bombing of Metrojet last year, Egypt has hired a consulting group, Control Risks, to help them bring their security standards up to par. That process is still underway and it will take time for new security measures and a new security culture to be instilled. So, overall it sounds like Egypt is doing the right thing but just had a bad day.
  • Q: Did the flight crew do the right thing?
  • A: It’s difficult to say since we don’t know all of the details but if we judge it on outcome alone, the flight crew got the aircraft safely on the ground and all of the passengers and crew were safe. So irrespective of what might have gone on, on-board, if were to judge this on the outcome alone, yes the flight crew did the right things.

So in conclusion (your honor) what does this incident really say? What this really says to me is that hijackings are still possible. Despite what homeland security officials have been telling us for years, which is basically that we should not worry about hijackings, because they don’t think they’re going to happen anymore – because we have air marshals and armed pilots, and ultimately passengers are never going to let this happen again, it can happen again.

On September 9, 2009 a lone hijacker with no bomb, but asserting that he had one managed to hijack Aeromexico Flight 576 a flight over Mexico. People did not rush the cockpit, there was no “let’s roll” and in fact some of the people did not even know the plane was hijacked until it was on the ground.

I do agree that it’s unlikely passengers are ever going to let terrorist with box cutters hijack a plane but what about terrorists with automatic weapons and hand grenades, as what happened during TWA flight 847 back in 1985? What about insiders smuggling in guns and bombs, on board (just like they did for TWA 847), and hijackers boarding the plane moving through security undetected because they do not have any prohibited items — then they step up in the middle of the flight, retrieve their weapons from their stashed locations, and take over the flight by shooting dozens of passengers and blasting open the cockpit door? Is that still plausible? Yes. It’s called the insider threat and it occurred not only with the TWA flight in 1985, but at other times throughout our history. History is important folks – that’s how we learn, evolve, adapt and survive to live through tomorrow.

We cannot ignore that real threats that are highlighted by this incident, or we will have taken our eye off the ball, and have another 9/11 on our hands.

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