Special Report: Aftermath

Are government and industry doing enough to make the sky secure?

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

WHAT'S REMARKABLE ABOUT THIS COUNTRY'S approach to aviation security, following September 11, is how broadly and rapidly it is being overhauled. Though the overhaul was triggered by the four coordinated airliner hijackings, it is extending well beyond the specifics of those crimes.

Cockpit doors are being reinforced, even though there’s no evidence so far that the September hijackers forced open any doors. The airport screener workforce has been targeted for reform, even though the weapons the hijackers used would not have caused screeners, under regulations then in place, to halt them at the checkpoints. Washington Reagan National Airport remained closed long after other U.S. airports and finally opened only with special restrictions, even though it was Washington Dulles International, not Reagan National, where one of the hijacked flights originated.

Though these changes do not address the security breaches of September 11, they are not unwarranted. One post-disaster report concluded: “The U.S. civil aviation security system is seriously flawed and has failed to provide the proper level of protection for the traveling public. This system needs major reform. Rhetoric is no substitute for strong, effective action.” The report was prompted, though, not by the recent hijacking assault, but by the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. A presidential commission on aviation security and terrorism issued it in 1990.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate on September 20, 2001, Captain Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, stated: “I suspect that many of us believed that, although flawed, our security system was generally doing the job that it was intended to do. Unfortunately, that mindset may well have been at the root of what enabled the 19 terrorists to perform their acts of unspeakable devastation.”

Perhaps the most far-reaching change of all is in that mindset. While in the past, vigilance would increase following a terrorist incident but relax as memory of the incident dimmed, the September 11 attacks were so ghastly that top-down changes, once deemed improbable, now seem inevitable. These include new airline and airport procedures, new regulations, and a lot more government investment in the development of new technologies.

Among the first things discarded was what’s known as the “common strategy” for handling hijacking. ALPA spokesman John Mazor points out that the motto used to be “Accommodate, negotiate, and do not escalate.” That philosophy was based on the assumption that the hijacker was as interested as everyone else in getting the airplane safely on the ground. But a terrorist bent on suicide has more options and a lot fewer constraints.

Well before September 11, there were several incidents that foretold the advent of airborne suicide terrorism, and perhaps the biggest failure by those responsible for the security of air travel was the failure to recognize the likelihood that airplanes themselves would be used as weapons. In 1994 a FedEx employee used hammers and a speargun to attack the three pilots of a FedEx DC-10, hoping to crash the wide-body into the company’s Memphis hub. Two of the pilots managed to wrestle the hijacker into submission before the airplane made an emergency landing at Memphis. That same year, terrorists from the Armed Islamic Group plotted to fly an Air France A300 into the Eiffel Tower to punish France for supporting the government of Algeria against a takeover by Islamic extremists. They hijacked the aircraft and killed three passengers, but they were in turn killed by French commandos after the flight landed in Marseilles to refuel. In 1987, a recently fired airline employee smuggled a pistol onto a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight. He shot both pilots and the British Aerospace 146 then crashed, killing all 43 on board. And in 1974, a man named Samuel Byck planned to assassinate President Richard Nixon by hijacking a Delta Airlines DC-9, shooting the pilots in flight, and then aiming the aircraft at the White House (Byck had sent a tape outlining his plan to a newspaper columnist before the flight). The DC-9 never left the gate at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and Byck was killed in a gun battle.

The new common strategy against hijacking is “Defend the cockpit at all costs.” Many U.S. airlines began adding deadbolts and reinforcement bars soon after the September hijackings. They also changed inflight procedures, calling on pilots and flight attendants to keep the door closed during flight and communicate primarily by interphone. Under new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, flight attendants no longer carry cockpit keys.

The first four of 17 recommendations to Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, made three weeks after the attacks by a “rapid response team” on aircraft security, also focused on the cockpit door. The team, whose members were drawn from airline management, aviation unions, and the aerospace industry, called for a new cockpit door design within six months and retrofit of the entire U.S. fleet a year after that.

If the cockpit is being turned into a fortress, should there be guns inside to defend it? A weapon in the cockpit is illegal under current FAA regulations, but ALPA recommends a voluntary program. Under the ALPA plan, a pilot who signs up would go through extensive background checks, psychological evaluation, and firearms training. Then he or she would be deputized as a federal law enforcement officer and carry a federally authorized weapon. The ammunition would be frangible, which means the bullet disintegrates on impact with a hard surface, so it would be unlikely to ricochet or seriously damage the aircraft. Such armed pilots would not take the place of federal air marshals; in fact, the FAA has begun a drive to hire and train thousands of armed marshals to fly aboard both domestic and international routes.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus