As published in the San Jose Merc News, Sunday, September 16, 2001

A simple way to prevent air hijackings

Steve Kirsch

Don’t we ever learn? Each time there is a major hijacking, we try the same solution: we increase airport security. Each time we fail. We keep repeating the same solution, each time expecting a different result.

If we really want to fix the problem of hijackings, we’ve got to change our thinking and look at the problem in a different way. So instead of trying to make it harder for the hijackers to get on the plane, why don’t we just remove the incentive to hijack the plane in the first place?

Consider this simple example: how many bank robberies would we have if every bank teller had a secret button they could press that would instantly (a) call the police, (b) seal the doors until the police arrived, and (c) time-lock the safe? The answer is simple: virtually none, because at that point, a bank could only be used to secure hostages. But if a terrorist just wanted to do that, many other approaches would be a far easier and safer target for a terrorist. So we eliminate bank robberies without having to hire additional security personnel in the bank or scan people with metal detectors as they walk in.

We can apply exactly the same logic to planes with some simple measures that will make it very unfulfilling to hijack a plane.

All modern day commercial aircraft have GPS systems and virtually all are capable of landing on autopilot. So why not put “panic” buttons mounted in the cockpit (one on each side of the cockpit) and a panic keypad in crew areas (one on each side of the plane in the forward and aft cabins) that put the plane into a SAFE mode. Once a plane is in SAFE mode, if the pilot deviates significantly (in altitude or direction) from the primary pre-arranged flight plan (or from three pre-programmed alternates that the pilot can choose from due to weather, air traffic, or airport closures), the auto-pilot automatically will temporarily engage and put the plane back on course, even landing the plane if necessary. We've had the technology to do this for years. For example, Airbus planes keep a pilot from doing anything "fishy" (by engaging the autopilot temporarily, just as we suggest here) and this mode is active 100% of the time!

This technique works because you take both the pilots and the terrorists out of a control situation. A terrorist can no longer threaten the pilot to "do this or I will kill people" because once the plane is in SAFE mode, the terrorist knows that the pilot can't accommodate the demand no matter what the pilot wants to do. So the terrorist can't get what he wants...the only thing he can do is kill all the people on the plane...and if he just wanted to kill people, bus hijackings are MUCH easier than plane hijackings.

There are a few extra details we have to consider to make this practical so that even if both pilots (and some or all of the crew) are terrorists, it will still work! Here are a few of them:

  • As soon as a panic button has been pressed, ground crews are automatically notified.
  • A plainclothes sky marshal could carry a wireless panic button, pepper spray, tazers, etc.
  • SAFE mode is automatically enabled if the cockpit door is opened without an authorization code, so a terrorist couldn't enter the cockpit without triggering SAFE mode.

The bottom line is simple: the ability to use the plane as a bomb or getaway vehicle will be completely eliminated. Hijacking a plane will be very unattractive relative to other methods (such as hijacking a bus) because in a plane, the hijacker is completely locked up, he has no control over his destination, and he would have to deal with an armed sky marshal on board, the potential of passenger riots (who will now believe they have nothing to lose by attacking a hijacker), and a small army of SWAT officers upon arrival.

There are many other ideas to make a plane unattractive to terrorists. For example, we could completely isolate the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft with doors that cannot be opened in flight and either gas or depressurize the cabin as necessary to disable hijackers. The pilot could also be instructed to have the passengers fasten their seat belts, then do some high G-force maneuvers to destabilize the hijackers.

The FAA should convene a small team of cross-functional experts (pilots, aircraft manufacturers, terrorism experts, and so on) to evaluate these and other ideas for making aircraft a less attractive target. My website ( has dozens innovative suggestions that the FAA could use as a starting point for discussions. 

Steve Kirsch is CEO of Propel, a Silicon Valley company that develops software which increases the scalability of databases.

Original idea: How to prevent air hijackings
Other concepts: How to prevent air hijackings (background) 

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