The following is based on information known at the time of writing and may change as more information becomes available. This post is designed to keep security professionals knowledgeable about trending security issues.
On October 22, an off-duty pilot attempted to interfere with the operation of an Horizon Air Flight operating as Flight 2059. He was subdued by the flight crew and pushed into the cabin. The aircraft landed safely and the man is now being charged with 80 counts of attempted murder.
The off-duty pilot was sitting in the jump seat and apparently tried to power down the aircraft engines. “Jumpseating” is a normal operation for off-duty personnel when commuting, and it is common for personnel from other airlines to fly with competitors (subject to each individual airline policy).
I will also note that this is not without precedent. An individual attempted to take over FedEx flight 705 in 1994 as he was riding along. He was actually assigned to be the second officer on the flight. B He had hit his crew rest requirement so he was ”jumpseating” and was sitting in a seat in the cargo area, not the cockpit. It did not stop him from attacking the flight crew and attempting to take over the plane. After a long fight, he was finally subdued until the aircraft could land and authorities could take him into custody
There was also the Germanwings co-pilot who, after waiting until the captain went to use the lavatory, locked the captain out and crashed the aircraft into the French Alps. Then, there was the Horizon Air employee who commandeered a Q400 aircraft from Seattle’s airport to joyride around, before crashing the plane into the ground.
The next natural question is, what is there to prevent this from happening in the future? First, post 9/11 the jumpseating practice was stopped temporarily. This removed a valuable method of moving off-duty and deadheading personnel around the aviation system. What prevents an off-duty employee from taking over an aircraft is exactly what happened in this instance – trusting crew members to physically prevent someone from taking over the flight controls. Our flight crew vetting system is just that – it’s based on trust. We have to trust personnel to a certain extent, or the system doesn’t work.
Some will suggest that we should post an armed officer on-board the flight deck, but what’s to prevent the armed officer from trying to take over the cockpit? Again, our system has to rely on a level of trust and the belief that others will be aware of suspicious activity and personnel and take appropriate action.
Maybe we should conduct psychological tests on flight crew members. Hmm, check that. It’s already done by most air carriers.
So let’s take this to the next level. What if an armed Federal Flight Deck Officer (i.e., armed pilot with authority to carry on the flight deck to protect the flight deck) goes rogue and attempts to take over the flight? Again, our system is built on trust – just like police officers and other armed public servants (FBI, etc), we have to take appropriate measures based on risks and then test the system from time to time (i.e., integrity checks) to ensure it’s working. The sad fact is there will always be bad actors throughout our system.
I know that everyone wants a solution to make sure they are 100% safe and secure at all times. Unfortunately, that solution doesn’t really exist – at least that is, if you still want to fly. Does that mean we don’t do anything in this case and just call ourselves lucky? No, let’s analyze what happened and determine if the current procedures were in place and working to the extent they were supposed to. Let’s also see if there are practical measures we can take to prevent or deter such activities in the future. What are those you ask? That’s why we analyze what happened – so we can potentially identify those solutions.