One of the solutions that the authorities seized upon after 9/11 was to barricade the pilots into the cockpit. The thinking was, even if the hijackers manage to take over the passenger compartment of an airliner they still can’t control the aircraft because they can’t get to the cockpit. The recent crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 illustrates the flaw built into the plan: what if the real danger lies among the crew?
For this reason, the crash of Flight 9525 in the Alps creates a dilemma for the aviation authorities: how should cockpit procedures be modified to both stop Mohammed Atta as well as a suicidal pilot? Gaming out the various scenarios illustrates the difficulty of preventing willful sabotage. Because somebody must be in charge, it seems that, at the end of the day, you will be forced to trust somebody. By this logic, beyond finding the most trustworthy people possible to fly your airplanes, there is nothing more you can do.
Or is there?
I submit that the solution to the dilemma posed by Flight 9525 can be found on the very day the procedures that helped cause it were inspired: September 11, 2001. To see this, we must first ask the question, what worked on 9/11? The answer is the passengers on United 93. Entirely upon their own initiative, they overpowered the terrorists and prevented United 93 from crashing into its intended target in Washington, either the Capitol or the White House. Their only shortcoming was that it took time for them to mount their counterattack. Initially, they followed the then-conventional wisdom that cooperation is the surest course of action. We now know this isn’t always true. The next United 93-style spontaneous militia won’t make that mistake. They will attack immediately. Indeed, this has already happened a number of times. Indeed, last week an airline passenger started yelling, “Jihad, Jihad” as he tried to storm the cockpit. He didn’t make it.
This tactic has been one of the indisputable success story of counterterrorism within the past 15 years but it is one that the authorities in charge of preventing terrorism are determined to ignore. Instead of disempowering the passengers by confiscating their penknives and nail clippers, and locking the flight crew into the cockpit (thereby enabling any suicidal co-pilots that may be on board), we should instead be enabling the passengers.
A pack of a hundred passengers can identify and eliminate the threat posed by both Mohammed Atta and Andreas Lubitz. The solution doesn’t have to be either-or.