How to Stop Hijackers from Using Planes as Weapons

As we discovered on Tuesday, hijackers don’t just seize an airplane for transportation, and they aren’t content to hold the passengers for ransom. They aren’t even content anymore to kill just the passengers. Now they use airliners as weapons themselves. We must either find a way to stop terrorists from making this use of airliners, or end airline travel.

How did this happen? We have built our airline security systems around hijackers of the past. In the United States, hijackers were usually mentally disturbed people with a gun. Such people were seldom rational or organized enough to sneak a weapon through the poor quality security that most American airports have.

Am I being too harsh on our screening procedures? I don’t think so. Back in the 1980s, a friend of mine carried a lead-lined bag in his briefcase, just to see if anyone would ask to see the contents. On the 21st time through a security checkpoint, they asked him to open his briefcase, and the lead-lined bag.

This problem is still with us today. I forgot to take a lockback knife with a 3.5″ blade out of my pocket before getting on an airline flight in Salt Lake City last year. The metal detector found it, but the security guard let me take it on the flight. This didn’t bother me, because I trust myself very much, but it made me wonder what else the security guards were letting onboard the plane.

We can certainly improve screening procedures, but like all such crisis-driven changes, we can’t expect tightened security to continue indefinitely. The guards that screen passengers become bored; the passengers whine about long lines; the vast majority of questionable items that show up on the X-ray machines turn out to be nothing at all.

The knives that the terrorists apparently used on Tuesday may not even have gone through the security checkpoint at all, if caterers or cleaners smuggled the weapons onboard. If improved security is only a temporary solution, is there a long-term solution that prevents terrorists from using airliners as very large cannonballs?

We used to have sky marshals — federal law enforcement officers who were aboard some flights, undercover, and armed with guns using special, low penetration ammunition to reduce the risk of damaging the airliner. We don’t have sky marshals anymore. To my knowledge, they never fired a gun onboard an airliner. If they ever arrested a hijacker, it received very little publicity. Unfortunately, sky marshals were not on every flight. If we brought them back, terrorists would probably take their chances. If terrorists hijacked four planes, as happened Tuesday, it seems likely that at least three of those flights would have no sky marshals to stop them.

There’s a simple solution: arm the pilots. We already trust airline pilots with the lives of hundreds of passengers. We pay airline pilots as well as we do not for the hours of boredom of the average flight, but for those few seconds when extraordinary situations require extraordinary coolness and judgment. If you don’t trust an airline pilot with a handgun, why would you trust them with the controls of the airplane?

This isn’t as expensive or complex a proposal as you may think. Many airline pilots received their flight training in the military, and have received some handgun training. I would be startled if many airline pilots don’t already own handguns.

The idea of the pilot shooting a terrorist onboard an airliner makes my blood run cold. The risk of hitting a passenger in high, especially when you consider that the pilot will almost always be shooting in the same direction as all of his passengers, and that terrorists will almost certainly take hostages. It is also true that a terrorist might decide to kill the passengers one by one trying to force the pilots to give up control of the plane, or just blow up the plane. This would mean hundreds of deaths onboard that airliner. But of this can be sure: no terrorist would be able to use that plane to kill thousands of people by ramming a skyscraper. I’ll take my chances with the armed pilots, thank you.

Clayton E. Cramer’s most recent book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His website is: