We’ve Already Fixed Aviation Security. And the TSA Had No Part In It.

United flight 1074 from Washington Dulles to Denver returned to DC last night after a passenger apparently charged the cockpit.

Several other passengers restrained the man until the aircraft made it back to Dulles. Police met the aircraft and took the individual to a hospital for evaluation.

Here’s video from the incident:

It turns out not to have been a good day for United. One of their flights diverted to Tokyo and passengers weren’t allowed to leave the terminal for 18 hours, while crew were permitted to go to a hotel and rest.

Here’s the interesting thing, to me, about the Dulles – Denver flight. Passengers restrained the individual who stormed the cockpit. And this is no longer an uncommon occurrence (passengers storming the cockpit is rare, but other passengers restraining unruly individuals is not).

That is what changed with 9/11. Passengers used to be docile in the face of threats, and cockpit crew used to comply with demands. The assumption is that someone taking control of an aircraft meant diverting it, and likely eventually releasing everyone unharmed in exchange for money and fuel. Now the assumption is that taking a plane means using the aircraft itself for nefarious purposes, with huge risk to the passengers.

That shift in mindset actually:

  1. Makes us more safe. There are a whole lot more passengers than there are going to be individuals trying to take control of the aircraft.
  2. Makes terrorism less likely. Since they can no longer count on compliant passengers, passengers fighting back increases risk and reduces chances of success.

Pilots are no longer instructed to let terrorists wielding weapons into the cockpit, either, and we’ve reinforced cockpit doors to keep them out.

Those two shifts make it very difficult to commandeer an aircraft. It should be no surprise, then, that the TSA has never caught a terrorist but that we don’t have frequent incidents.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was impressed by how “gentle” they were being in holding him, as they seemed to be aware that he was more upset than malicious. I would suspect a mental health issue here, and it was nice that they were trying to just help him remain calm, if immobile.

  2. @nsx my suggestion isn’t that passengers NEVER were aggressive during incidents before, just that there’s been a huge shift since 9/11 and that’s been a boon for security.

  3. Uh, you also forgot the most important part: it’s not actually possible to “charge the cockpit door” because they’re reinforced. So even if the passengers remained docile (which they aren’t anymore) the door is basically impossible to break through (it’s made of Kevlar so it’s hard to shoot your way in, let alone break it down). Also, since this blog is first class, you are clearly familiar with the dance the FA perform for the pilot to use to lavatory.

  4. TSA are now a fixture and just like the Patriot Act, once something is enacted you have to move a mountain or two to get it removed. Congress firmly believes in “security theater” to make their voters less panicky, and voters have given them ample reason to believe that is what they want.

    I do miss the days when I could meet someone at their gate.

  5. I get the spirit of the article… it’s not wrong. But the TSA does largely succeed in keeping dangerous items off airplanes. The reason passengers can be so effective is because these people don’t have weapons.

    So, you’re right about the mindset changing and that making us safer in the air, but I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the TSA and the job they’re supposed to do.

  6. For those sticking up for TSA, its important to know that TSA is a big organization. The Air Marshals are part of TSA, do you think they are a good use of tax payers money? Will the flight deck ever be breached again?

  7. Just because passengers are more willing to subdue potential hijackers doesn’t mean that a plane cannot still be hijacked. We have not “already fixed aviation security.”

    Take the case of the Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 from ADD to MXP, whereby the pilot hijacked the plane and landed in Geneva.

  8. @Peter well sure the pilot (or in that case, co-pilot) can hijack a plane but that’s really a different issue and not one a tsa can solve, the pilot left the cockpit and the co-pilot locked him out.

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