Hijack Prevention


Many in the press have already begun discussing changes to commercial aircraft and the airline industry to prevent the kind of horrible events that occurred on Tuesday, 11 September 2001 from ever happening again. Some potential changes to the aircraft themselves include:
  1. Impenetrable cockpit doors: Several airlines that have been subjected to repeated hijackings in the past, such as Israel's El Al, already fit thick armored cockpit doors to their planes that make it very difficult for an intuder to gain access. At the very least, a door should take significant time and effort to get open allowing the pilots time to warn air traffic control, head for an emergency landing site, and prepare methods of dealing with the intruders.
  2. Cockpit and cabin cameras: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has advocated adding video cameras to the cockpit for several years. In the past, these have been desired for crash investigations as an addition to the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder. However, pilots have not reacted well to the idea, but that reluctance will almost surely disappear after the recent terrorist attacks. It may also be possible to downlink these camera feeds to the ground in case of trouble allowing air traffic controllers to see who is at the controls in a hijacking attempt. In addition, cameras in the cabin would seem to be a wise addition allowing the pilots to monitor any strange behavior among the passengers.
  3. Change to the FDR, CVR, and transponder: One of the clever moves made by the hijacking pilots on at least some of the aircraft was to remove the circuit breakers for the transponders. These devices transmit certain information about the plane to air traffic control facilities on the ground giving controllers a complete picture of the flight number, speed, altitude, and other information about the plane. By removing the curcuit breakers, these transponders were disabled and the ground controllers had greater difficulty tracking the aircraft. It has been hypothesized that the hijackers may have also disabled the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) in the same manner. Such an action would make it more difficult for investigators to piece together how the hijackers did what they did. In any event, it would seem to be a good idea to eliminate the dependence on circuit breakers and make these devices impossible to disable during flight.
Another idea that has been tossed around is adding a system allowing the pilots to fill the passenger cabin with gas that would put all the passengers to sleep, including the terrorists, in an emergency. Although such a system would completely disable the hijackers until the plane was able to land, the gas could be circumvented simply by wearing a mask. Pilots and flight attendants are already equipped with gas masks, so it would not be too difficult for terrorists to gain access to them as well. In addition, the gas may cause allergic reactions in some passengers making the airline susceptible to lawsuits.

A final interesting idea is to equip planes in flight with the ability to be flown using realtime flight simulators on the ground. If control of an aircraft is taken over by a hijacker pilot, pilots on the ground could then override his ability to fly the plane. Supporters of this idea point out that such a system was implemented on the Space Shuttle over 20 years ago to be used if the crew were somehow incapacitated. However, expanding a system from one vehicle to the thousands of flights across the US on dozens of different types of aircraft operated by domestic and foreign airlines would be a very expensive and technically challenging proposition. In addition, there is the frightening prospect that hijackers could somehow gain control of one of these ground stations and thereby turn multiple commercial flights into flying bombs without even boarding a plane.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 16 September 2001

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