How to Recognize and Fight a Terrorist on a Plane
by Randy Plante
The attempted bombing of Delta/Northwest 253 on Christmas Day was not the first from the Islamic terrorists nor will it be the last. Since I am a pilot, I have had people ask what can a passenger do onboard an airplane to help thwart a terrorist attack. Having personal experience with a few events myself, as well as reading articles and hearing stories from other crewmembers, I can give you some information which might assist you in dealing with a suspicious passenger or situation.
The first thing to realize is that there are a few different scenarios which the terrorists could be using on your particular flight. (Also realize that it could happen on any flight, not just one originating from a non U.S. location.) Options include testing TSA and law enforcement personnel, testing passengers and crewmembers, observation, dry run/practice, and actual execution of an attack. Of course it is hard to differentiate which scenario is playing out until after your flight lands, but it might assist you in recognizing the threat and knowing how serious your reaction should be if you know all of the options. In most of these instances, their job is to also scare you. Terrorists create terror. If you stop flying, they win. So be pro-active. Maybe something you do will cause them to call off the attack.
As a passenger you must be observant and vigilant. Most often someone notices some unusual activity or behavior. It doesnít have to be just a person either. Suspicious bags, luggage, packages, notes, pillows, and electronic devices have been found on planes. One of the biggest advantages you have is the ability to profile. TSA refuses to do the obvious thanks to political correctness. Everyone knows who is committing these attacks -- Muslim, Middle-Eastern men between 18 and 40. Maybe al Qaeda is trying to recruit others than donít fit this profile but it sure fits the mold right now.
Some things to look for: groups or pairs of men, a passenger talking to themselves, speaking Arabic, watching crewmembers (this is different than looking), staring at the cockpit door, long stays or multiple trips to the lavatory, reading a book but not turning any pages, nervousness, being unusual by trying to fit in, taking pictures/videos, not making eye contact. When you are at the boarding area and on the plane if you notice a suspicious passenger, look for others. How many? If it is one or two then they could be planning on bombing the aircraft or just making observations of crew procedures. 6 or more? Then this cellís objective would be hijacking the plane by brute force. Also remember that there are sleepers that try to blend in with the other passengers and could be very hard to notice. A website reports a well-dressed man in custody that was also a passenger on Delta Flight 253. After an incident, your entire plane might be delayed for security and they will treat everyone as suspects. Also expect the government and airline to try to cover up parts or all of an event.
A recent example of a possible test occurred on Nov 17 with an Airtran flight from Atlanta to Houston. Eleven Muslim men got on the plane and caused a big disturbance and ended with passengers assisting the flight attendants in the commotion. TSA was called, they took the men off, talked to them, and put them back on. The crewmembers walked off the plane refusing to fly it, and then passengers walked off as well. The terrorists tested the TSA and passengers but probably also threatened lawsuits to the government and Airtran. This could be setting up a later mission with hopes the TSA and airline would be afraid to take them off the plane. Just like the Delta flight, the final layer of security, the crewmembers and passengers, are the ones who might have prevented an attack, nothing the government did was successful.
The best time to do something is prior to boarding and before the aircraft pushes back from the gate while the door is still open. This is when you have some control in the situation and easier for the captain to get involved. Before you board you can talk to a TSA employee or gate agent and explain your concerns. The gate agents are usually very busy and might give you the brush off. Talk to other passengers. While on the plane you will have to find a flight attendant, which could prove difficult because at times the boarding process can be quite chaotic. If one flight attendant seems to ignore you then talk to the other one. Maybe ask to see the captain. Write a note. If you are really scared, grab your bags, say you are sick, and get off the plane. Some crewmembers can be just as ignorant about the serious nature of the threat as our government officials. One time after a flight years ago a flight attendant asked me what the captain did about the suspicious passenger. She had called the cockpit inflight to report the behavior to the captain (since retired) and he neglected to tell me anything and did nothing.
While seated look for able-bodied men, military personnel, or deadheading crew to assist you. Maybe you notice a suspicious passenger but do not feel it warrants a visit with TSA/Flight Attendant or it happens inflight . Volunteer yourself or change seats on your own to sit next to or right behind any suspicious passengers. A recent crew moved a soldier to sit next to a nervous Middle-Eastern passenger before pushback. Once while I was deadheading in coach during a flight, the captain told the flight attendant to move me next to a suspicious passenger.
Once airborne there are limited options. Talking to the flight attendants and moving seats is basically all you can do. A divert takes time and would be a major emergency. On the flight I diverted for security issues we had an F-16 on our tail, ready to shoot us down if we didnít immediately land.
If an actual attack occurs, then all bets are off. Take Action! DO NOT wait for crewmember instruction! This is a life or death situation. The terrorists will be hoping for the element of surprise. You will probably die anyways if the terrorists are successful so you might as well die giving them a fight. If it is a hijacking, block the aisles and do not let them get to the cockpit. For a bombing, jump on the passenger and separate him from the ignition source. For a suspicious package, box, etc. there is a place on the plane to move it to, but do not move it until necessary and with guidance from the crew.
The airlines are doing their best just to stay in business with the recession, bad weather, tough competition, and low fares. The employees are very frustrated with pay cuts, long hours, full planes, grumpy customers and poor morale. The commercial aviation system wasnít designed to fight terrorists. And donít necessarily blame the TSA and law enforcement agencies. They have some really hard working personnel trying to protect us. It is the policies implemented by people working in the U.S. government that is the problem, and amazing enough, it is the federal government that is required by law to defend us by the U.S. constitution. So what do they do? President Obama decides to take legal action against CIA employees for using special interrogation techniques to obtain information from terrorists to keep us safe. It was an obvious emotional, liberal, political decision. This will only make it much more difficult for the intelligence agencies to do their jobs and recruit/retain top talent, as well as lowering morale.
Another government employee, the DHS Secretary herself, said after the 12/25 attempted bombing, ďthe system workedĒ when it was obvious to the world that it did not. The news media gave President Bush an amazing amount of grief for not connecting the dots with 9/11. Regarding the underwear bomber on Flight 253; his father warned the government, was on a watch list, paid cash for his ticket, no passport, no luggage. A third grader could have connected these dots. The Republicans had to undo the laws and policies enacted by the Clinton Administration that impeded communication between intelligence and law enforcement agencies while President Bush implemented new ones to protect us after September 11. Now Democrats are acting like it is September 10 again.
Government by definition is a bureaucratic monopoly. It is managed by politicians and career bureaucrats. Slow, inefficient, unaccountable. Lots of finger pointing, blame games, commissions, hearings, conferences, meetings, and reports, but do you know anybody that got fired after 9/11, Fort Hood, or any other government blunder? Deja vous with this security lapse? It feels like we are on a team that wants to lose. And I donít like being on a team that likes losing and neither does millions of people across the United States.
Unfortunately, until the Obama administration, Congress, and our government officials get serious with national security and the war on terrorism, then what we will lose is more of our freedoms and the lives of more American citizens.
Randy Plante is a former Air Force Captain and F-111 pilot. He flew a C-130 with the Air National Guard and served two tours in the Bosnian War. Currently Mr. Plante is a Captain with 19 years at a major airline.