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Protecting Planes Against Terrorist Attack

How best to safely protect against the terrorist threat


In a perfect world, there would be no terrorists and planes would be completely safe.  No-one would have or need guns.

But the world is not perfect, and no-one disputes the existence of terrorists determined to take over planes and use them as flying bombs.

What is our best strategy to maximize airplane safety?

Part 1 of a 2 part series - click for Parts  One  Two



In the first part of this series, we examine what would happen if unarmed terrorists attempt to take over a plane that has neither armed air marshals nor armed pilots on board.

The purpose of this is to determine if a plane is safe if no passengers have guns or knives, or if a plane remains at risk from relatively unarmed passengers.

If we could 100% guarantee that there are no armed terrorists on planes, would we still need armed marshals and armed pilots?

Let's assume that somehow our screening becomes 100% secure, and there is a complete guarantee that no-one can ever smuggle a firearm on board a flight. (Note that, at present, some studies suggest that 20% or more of all illegal items - including guns and knives - pass through security without detection.)

Do we still need armed marshals or armed pilots in such a perfect world scenario?  We've got the pilots safely behind their bullet-proof door, and a plane full of passengers, at least some of whom will likely choose to actively resist and fight against terrorists.

Sorry - the flight is absolutely not secure, and still very much at risk.

Not only guns and knives are dangerous

There are countless ways that skilled and motivated terrorists could either smuggle aboard, or create from materials on the plane, improvised weapons to give them an edge in any on-plane struggle.  See how many things you can think of - here are just a few to get you started :

  • A broken off handle from a carry on bag, and a set of keys threaded through your fingers, could make a very nasty 'knuckleduster'.

  • A bottle of duty free liquor, smashed open at the neck, would be another weapon.

  • Even a sturdy pen (perhaps loaded with poisoned ink) could be used as a stiletto type weapon.

  • A laptop battery would make a nasty club.

  • Break a pole off a suitcase's wheeling along handle rod, and you have a spear.

  • Two bottles of normal seeming liquids could be mixed together to form tear gas, or a dangerous acid or strong poison - or powerful explosive.

Or, more simply, a martial arts expert would likely not need any weapon at all!  And there's no way that security screening can prevent people skilled in martial arts from boarding any flights they choose.

Passengers can't effectively gang up against terrorists

Although the odds might be something like 100 passengers against 4 terrorists, the reality is that only perhaps 10 or 20 of the passengers would be capable of mounting a credible defense, while the others would variously be too old or too young, or too infirm, or just too terrified to do anything helpful.

Even if all the passengers chose to actively fight the terrorists, there is another problem.  With narrow aisles on the plane, probably only one passenger at a time could confront the terrorists.  If you've ever tried to squeeze past another person standing in the aisle, you'll know that there is no way that two people could jointly confront a terrorist.

Sure, other passengers could try clambering over seats to outflank the terrorist, but whatever they do, there will only be an effective two or three people able to fight against the terrorist(s) at any one time (assuming a single aisle plane, of course).

And if the terrorists move to the narrow passageway at the front of the plane that leads to the cockpit, the number of passengers that can simultaneously confront the terrorists effectively reduces down to only one.

What about the reinforced cockpit door?

At a cost, many times exceeding $100,000 per door, the airlines have replaced their flimsy doors with heavy duty and bullet proof doors, to make the cockpit supposedly secure.

More than you ever wanted to know about bullets

A bullet has very little force behind it - ignore the movie images of people, when hit by a bullet, being thrown spectacularly backwards.  It doesn't happen that way in real life.

A bullet, when it hits something, has no more energy than the recoil experienced by the person shooting the gun (remember your physics - every action has an equal and opposite reaction).  If a person can hold and shoot a gun with only one hand, then obviously the bullet isn't very powerful.

The lethality and danger of a bullet comes from the fact that it's energy is concentrated in a small and hard area - a bullet injures and kills primarily by penetration, not by physical force.

And so, a bullet-proof door can actually be very light-weight, with just a layer of kevlar to protect against high velocity bullet penetration, while remaining vulnerable to low speed battering ram type attacks.

This security is, alas, largely an illusion.  Based on the design specifications for the strength of these doors, while they may well be bulletproof, they are probably not person-proof.

A moderately heavy man could run up to the cockpit door, throw himself against it, and burst it open.  Any person could take a loaded trolley and use that for extra mass to achieve the same result.

Furthermore, there's another problem with cockpit doors - they are all the time being opened, either by the pilots or by the flight attendants.  While in theory the pilots are supposed to carefully check that the area is safe and secure each time before they open the door, what is to stop a terrorist, who had been hiding just out of view around the corner, from then rushing at the pilot while the door is open?

Recognizing this danger, El Al has a double door system on its planes, like an airlock, where only one door is ever open at a time.  The new Airbus A380 is expected to offer such a design as standard, but no other planes currently offer this feature - it would take up too much valuable space!

Could pilots make the plane do crazy things and incapacitate the terrorists?

Many pilots will tell you, with more than a trace of swagger, that as soon as they learn of terrorists in the passenger cabin, they'll depressurize the plane and do aerobatic maneuvers to make it impossible for the terrorists to move about.

The aerobatic maneuvers would immediately throw any passengers not wearing the seatbelts all around the place, and could severely injure such passengers.  This would affect everyone that didn't have their seat belt fastened securely - all the flight attendants, anyone else out of their seats, and those foolish passengers that didn't have their seat belt fastened.  But, fairly and realistically, breaking a few innocent bones, and perhaps even one or two people being killed, is a small price to pay to protect the plane, its other passengers, and the lives of people in whatever ground target the terrorists had selected to crash into.

While the pilots are doing wild and crazy aerobatics, they'd also be depressurizing the cabin, bleeding all the air out of it.  Regular passengers would finally get a chance to use one of the oxygen masks that would hopefully drop from the overhead panels.

Presumably, once the plane had depressurized to the point that everyone needed to be using an oxygen mask to breathe, the pilots would straighten up their flying and head directly to a secure landing field somewhere.  Terrorists could certainly also use the oxygen masks, but they couldn't freely move about the plane - the cords on the masks aren't long enough!

Everyone would be more or less imprisoned by the need to keep close to an oxygen mask until such time as the plane descended below 15,000 ft, although there is nothing to stop the terrorists from holding their breath for a couple of minutes, leaving behind their oxygen mask, doing something bad, then returning to another oxygen mask for more air, a bit like divers going into the ocean, then coming up for a breath of air, then going back down again.

When the plane got below 15,000 ft, the atmosphere starts to become sufficient for people to breathe unassisted.  At that point, terrorists could start to move about the cabin again, and certainly by the time the plane got below 10,000 ft, they could act - and fight - pretty much normally.  There would be about 10 minutes of risk during which time the terrorists could try and again take over the plane.

The good news and bad news of that scenario is that, by then, the plane would be 'escorted' by fighter jets, and if the terrorists gained control, the fighters would be authorized to destroy the plane, as being the lesser of two evils (compared to having the plane flown into a ground target).  Depending on whether you're on the plane or on the ground at the probable target may influence your opinion as to if this is good or bad news!

Terrorists will avoid confrontation

Although we've considered how the passengers and pilots could fight against an attempted terrorist takeover of a plane, the reality is that sensible terrorists will try and avoid all the scenarios we've considered so far.

Ignore what you see in the movies.  Your typical terrorist does not stand up at the very back of the plane and shout 'Allah Akhbar' or whatever and then fight his way dramatically up to the cockpit.

Instead, and as we know from the 9/11 terrorist actions, the terrorists will likely choose to buy seats in the first class cabin of the plane, closest to the cockpit (and also enabling them to better check out their fellow passengers in the first class cabin, which is where any federal air marshals will likely be found).

The terrorists will try and take control of the plane by stealth, and - anticipating likely responses from other passengers and air force fighter jets - will probably wait until they are only 10 or 15 minutes from their chosen target before making their move.  A terrorist takeover of a plane will be stealthy, surprising, and sudden.

How many terrorists will there be

We should expect there will be more than one terrorist.  It is more likely that there will be many terrorists taking part in any future attack (there were an average of five terrorists on each of the four planes on 9/11).  Particularly if the terrorists are going to try and take over a plane without any weapons, then obviously, the more of them on board, the easier it becomes for them to succeed.

Why not have the terrorists make a group booking of 20 or 40 or more people on their targeted flight?  This would go a long way to increase their chances of success.  100 passengers against 4 terrorists is one thing, but 60 passengers (remembering the usual mix of children, women, and elderly people) against 40 fighting fit terrorists is a very different scenario.

The 9/11 terrorist acts were really very low tech, and so were hard to protect against.  A future terrorist act might be even lower tech still - with just a large number of terrorists on a plane using their fists and nothing else to take it over. How can we protect against that?

Read more in part two

In part two we talk about how to safeguard a plane to prevent it from being taken over by terrorists, and discuss the benefits and dangers of firearms on a plane.

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Originally published 30 January 2004, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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