Issues & Insights
Adrian Pingston

Should You Be An Airplane Vigilante?

A North Carolina woman who said she wanted to “stab everyone on the plane” then commit suicide was charged with assaulting a federal air marshal during a United Airlines flight from Frankfurt that landed at Washington Dulles International Airport on Feb 22. She had set off a lavatory smoke detector, tried to reenter while striking the flint of her lighter, and fought off air marshals who were attempting to handcuff her.

It’s difficult to keep psychotics and sociopaths off airplanes, so such occurrences are inevitable, and not every flight has trained, armed air marshals aboard. Sometimes, passengers need to help. I am reminded of a 2018 example of passengers having to subdue an unruly, dangerous passenger during a Delta Air Lines flight from Raleigh, North Carolina, when a young woman tried to yank open a door of the plane in mid-flight — forcing the pilot to declare an emergency as it landed at LaGuardia Airport.

Should stopping such people be considered “vigilantism” — a term derived from San Francisco’s Committee of Vigilance, formed by prominent citizens in 1851 to combat organized crime — which conjures up visions of mob violence and lynching? Whatever we call it, few would likely question that under extreme circumstances, it still has a place. The Delta incident is one example, but the exemplar is, of course the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 fighting hijackers and causing the plane to crash in western Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

There have been many other incidents in which the actions of passengers, individually or working together, averted danger during commercial flights.

“Shoe bomber” Richard Reid unsuccessfully attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes and was subdued by a flight attendant and a passenger; on a London to Washington, D.C., flight, an apparently psychotic woman became unruly and had to be restrained and handcuffed by other passengers; a Nigerian terrorist tried to ignite an incendiary device as his flight was preparing to land in Detroit; and a flight attendant and two passengers intervened as a Yemeni national, shouting “Allāhu Akbar” (“God is Great”), attempted to break into the cockpit of a Chicago to San Francisco flight. In 2018, an agitated passenger on a St. Croix to Miami flight became combative after being denied more beer, scuffled with his seat mate, an off-duty policeman, and was arrested by the FBI after the plane landed. 

Some other incidents seem more highly organized. Airlines have informed pilots and flight attendants that terrorists appear to have staged dry runs of attacks on airplanes in order to provoke, test and analyze security measures. There was, for example, the suspicious incident on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles during which a group of 14 Syrian musicians indulged in several hours of bizarre behavior that passengers and members of the flight crew suspected was terrorism-related. The men loitered in small groups during the flight; made innumerable trips to the lavatories, often carrying a large paper bag that was passed from hand to hand; and finally, as the plane was making its final approach into Los Angeles, “suddenly, seven of the men stood up in unison” and walked to various parts of the plane, according to a fellow passenger who later wrote about the experience.

For the millions of us who fly regularly, these sorts of incidents, and the prospect of would-be terrorists testing the vulnerability of airplane security, bring up the questions of when passengers should intervene, and what they should do.

Tommy Hamilton, SWAT team commander for the police force at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, who has worked closely with air marshals, cautions against a rush to vigilantism and urges reliance on the professionals. “Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical. It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves as a terrorist-hijacker.”

However, if no air marshals are aboard (and currently they are assigned to most international flights but only a small percentage of domestic flights), flight attendants and passengers are the first line of defense. Passengers should obey the directions of the flight crew, but they should be prepared, mentally and physically, to act. Like a basketball player getting ready for a jump ball, or a sprinter in the starting blocks, every able-bodied passenger needs to be ready to move, and to act aggressively, not tentatively.

Experts feel that only rarely will terrorists be able to get firearms or explosives on a plane, and having to rely on “softer” weapons puts them at a disadvantage when confronted by scores of passengers, who have at hand plenty of potential improvised weapons: a hard kick to the knee (easier to administer and more likely to succeed than in the groin, according to law enforcement officials); an elbow in the face or ribs; any sharp object in the eyes; a soda can torn in half, which yields a knife-like edge; a computer cord or belt used as a garrote; an oxygen canister (in one or more of the overhead bins) or metal coffee pot or wine bottle used as a club. (Go for the bridge of the nose or the temple, and swing for the fences: Remember that you’re dealing with a would-be mass murderer.)

Just as we need to be prepared for other low-probability but serious threats, such as muggers or shooters in public places, when we fly it’s important to maintain situational awareness and to have a plan.

Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.

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