How to Hijack an Airplane in 3 Seconds

Ten years after 9/11, airline cockpits are vulnerable every time a pilot takes a bathroom break. So why isn't the FAA making secondary barriers a requirement?



One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. Three-one thousand.

And just like that, it can happen: From the front row of a passenger airplane, a group of hijackers leap from their seats and race toward the cockpit, leaving flight attendants, galley carts, and other improvisational means of defense in their wake. The reinforced cockpit door, opened just a few moments earlier to allow one of the pilots to use the lavatory, slams shut behind them, sealing off all hopes of regaining control of the aircraft.

All in a matter of three seconds.

It's a scenario the Federal Aviation Administration has been aware of for years and one that has prompted many in the airline industry to push for installed physical secondary barriers (IPSBs) -- retractable, fence-like devices set up between the cabin and the cockpit -- as well as more comprehensive, industry-wide security procedures on all passenger aircraft.

"We're in a race against time, frankly, because there is going to be another attack," said Capt. Ed Folsom, a United Airlines pilot who has played an active role in the development of the secondary barrier system since 2002. "I'm no rocket scientist, so if I can see the vulnerability, so can everyone else."

The primary concern: door transitions, or times when the cockpit door is opened and closed during a flight. Although most transitions are over before passengers even realize they're happening, Folsom and others, including Capt. Rob Powers, said they believe airplanes are not as secure as they can and should be during these brief exchanges.

"Just like in medieval times, the castle is secure until you open the drawbridge," said Powers, a commercial airline pilot and former chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's National Security Committee. "If you don't have a moat or something else around to add a second layer of security, then you have some vulnerabilities. When the door's open, it's just a hole."

Post-9/11 FAA regulations do permit flight crews to open and close cockpit doors during flights, but only when it is necessary to do so. Typically, this means meeting pilots' physiological needs -- for example, lavatory use and food and beverage service -- though airline officials said pilots may need to exit the cockpit if mechanical problems arise during a flight.

Currently, each airline has its own FAA-approved procedures that specify how crews should go about opening and closing the cockpit door mid-flight. While the FAA doesn't specify how long or how many times the door can be opened per flight, FAA officials said it is assumed crews will do it as quickly and minimally as possible, usually for under five seconds.

But numerous passenger complaints, obtained from the Transportation Security Administration through a Freedom of Information Act request, suggest this isn't always the case.

On April 28, 2007, a passenger flying from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to San Diego filed a complaint saying that the cockpit door was open for five minutes mid-flight, according to TSA records.

More recently, on May 3, 2010, a passenger flying between Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis said the cockpit door was opened a minimum of five times during the flight.

"Once that door comes open, you're vulnerable to another attack like 9/11," said Capt. Paul Onorato, a commercial airline pilot and former president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

In recent years, according to Onorato, the coalition has set up scenarios where a handful of would-be terrorists are seated in the first few rows of an airplane. These scenarios have shown that terrorists are able to "blow past" both a flight attendant and galley cart and get into the cockpit within three seconds.

What's more, Folsom added that the drills, while grim, likely offer a best-case scenario.

"We looked at some highly trained individuals playing the role of flight attendants and crew members and even they couldn't prevent a breach of the flight deck," Folsom said. "If they can't do it, then little 57-year-old, 40 percent body fat Susie isn't going to do it."

Secondary barriers, supporters say, would give crews more time -- approximately five seconds -- to react to threats. Prior to opening the cockpit door, flight crews would deploy the barrier, temporarily securing the space directly in front of the cockpit door.

"It's not an impenetrable barrier," Powers said of the device. "If somebody attempted to breach it, that would, one, give everyone an indication of that individual's intent and, two, delay them long enough so one of the flight attendants could shut the flight deck door."

Despite the barriers' perceived benefits, the FAA has yet to mandate them, largely because of the cost of the devices -- about $5,000 to $10,000 per barrier.

"Right now, we don't see a need for it," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said, adding that the post-9/11 security measures the FAA and TSA currently have in place, such as improved screening technologies and increased air marshals, have been sufficient.

This doesn't mean the FAA has dismissed the barriers altogether. In 2008, the administration petitioned to establish a committee that includes representatives from the FAA, airlines, and airline trade associations. Folsom, a co-chairman of the committee, said the group is currently working on a report that will outline minimum performance criteria, installation instructions, and other issues for secondary barriers. Folsom said the committee is on track to complete the report this September, around the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Presented by

Abraham Tekippe

Abe Tekippe is an MSJ candidate at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where he is studying interactive publishing.

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