Mexico Hijacking — Could it happen here?

The recent hijacking in Mexico let’s us know that it is still possible to hijack an aircraft. In fact, there have been a few attempted hijackings each year since 9/11, but we rarely hear about them. Plus, no attempts in the U.S. since 9/11 that were valid.

But, the question does need to be asked. Could it happen here? Could it happen again? Aren’t we all very aware of the dire consequences of another hijacking. Won’t the air marshals make sure it doesn’t happen again? What about the armed pilots? And if neither on are the plane, won’t passengers rise up and make sure it doesn’t happen again? Won’t we fight back like they did on United 93?

These are all good questions. While not going into specifics there are still several valid methods that a hijacking could take place, and could still take place here in the U.S. Our response to any hijacking would likely be very different than in the pre 9/11 days, but that doesn’t mean it cannot occur. There are still gaps in aviation security, some expensive to fix, some not so expensive, but all cost money. We need to balance the risks of the potential for another hijacking against the odds that it will happen again, and against other threats that we should be spending money on.

Employee screening remains an open issue. TSA piloted some programs last year to see what would be effective. Obviously, screening most of the employees (unlike what is done today) would reduce the amount of prohibited items that employees could bring into the airport’s security areas, but there are still other gaps and this screening could cost airports billions of dollars to staff up, buy equipment and then operate employee screening checkpoints. Is this money well spent?

Historically, many hijackings and bombings have been facilitated by airport, airline and airport-tenant employees, including PSA Flight 1771, Pan Am 103, FedEx Flight 705 and several overseas events where in some cases hijackers have been dressed as security guards, and in the case of TWA 847 where caterers pre-positioned guns and grenades for the hijackers to use ahead of time.

Other TSA employee screening pilot programs focused on behavior recognition and employee awareness. These are less costly and arguably more effective than screening every single employee.

Let’s put the employee-facilitated attack aside for the moment and consider the Mexico hijacking. From what we’ve seen so far (and keep in mind, I’m writing this just shortly after the event has been secured), one of the hijackers said they had a bomb. In the early 70s, there were a series of hijackings where an individual “said” they had a device and managed to successfully hijack the plane. It’s “you bet your life,” as you try to figure out if the guy is bluffing or not. How will we stop that sort of attack? Will you decide the ‘bomber’ is bluffing and fight back, or will you pause and consider that he or she may be telling the truth. Odds could be in your favor as that individual would have had to get through screening first, but then consider the employee issue.

And we’ve come full circle.

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