How to stop commercial air hijackings without inconveniencing air travelers

October 4, 2001 by Steve Kirsch

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch has an idea for preventing skyjacking: we install panic buttons that put the plane on forced autopilot, randomly select one of the nearest airports capable of accommodating that plane type, and automatically land the aircraft.

Version 19 originally published September 20, 2001. Published on KurzweilAI.net October 4, 2001.

If you are reading a paper copy, you should check to see you have the latest version:http://www.skirsch.com/politics/plane/disable.htm.

Executive Summary

  • The rules of engagement have changed; we need to adjust our behavior and policies to reflect that, not apply the same old rules to a new problem.
  • We’ve already tried beefing up security after every hijacking; we repeatedly fail; why do we continue to take an approach that has proven time and again not to work? In addition to changes in security, why don’t we ALSO try something different?
  • Instead of just focusing on keeping terrorists off the plane, why don’t we ALSO take steps to make the plan an “unattractive” target?
  • There are a number of simple things we can do to increase security and to make the plane unattractive; some we can do virtually immediately; some we can phase in over time.Some are very high tech and some are incredibly low-tech.
  • No single “action” is without a counter-measure. We should take a number of actions and should put first priority on things that:
  • Would have frustrated the methods used in the 9/11 attacks so that we can’t have a repeat
  • Make the plane a less attractive target to hijackers or screen passengers in a new way
  • Do not inconvenience passengers, free trade, or damage our economy
  • Can be implemented immediately or soon
  • Are low cost to implement
  • Have minimal “unintended consequences”
  • We seem to be our own worst enemy here. We did a lot of unnecessary damage the economy by halting flights for a week. We still restrict crop dusters from flying.
  • Congress should request that the FAA evaluate ideas consistent with the above and send an analysis of their recommendations to Congress for their input. I’ve listed many suggestions below for both increasing security and making the plane a less attractive with minimal passenger inconvenience. Many can be implemented immediately, at virtually no cost. I’d be glad to send the FAA the complete list of hundreds of suggestions I’ve received.
  • Why don’t we try a few of the ideas below in planes now and see if they work (like the pilot announcement and/or pepper spray and/or police officers carrying guns fly free)? Most are super-easy and super-safe to try. Let’s not shoot down good ideas if we haven’t tested them!
  • Don’t focus on SAFE mode below. SAFE mode is just one idea (and has a relatively long gestation period). There are others that are better, cheaper, safer, faster to implement and more effective. Read on…
  • Also included below are methods to conclusively determine whether bin Laden really did it, methods to find bin Laden, and an offer we should extend to bin Laden before we take any military action (an offer he can’t refuse!).
  • The smartest thing is for Congress to immediately stabilize air travel by making it safe in consumers’ eyes. That would mean adopting a system proven to work, e.g., El Al’s procedures. You can fine tune it later. Right now, we should copy what works. If not El Al, then someone else. No reason to re-invent the wheel here. We don’t have time.
  • So the FAA or Congress should:
  • Immediately implement those El Al procedures that can be done immediately and easily and inexpensively
  • Get public input and comment on other ideas such as the ones below
  • Report on pro/con on these ideas and get a decision on which to try out.
  • Try out these low-cost/fast to implement suggestions on a small scale to ensure they work, then deploy on a mass scale (e.g, pepper spray, pilot announcements, etc).
  • Prepare a report on longer term solutions with pros/cons. Invite public comment. Try them out on a small scale (cheapest/easiest ones first). If effective, implement on large scale
  • Most promising long term idea in my opinion is to use a few relatively inexpensive high-tech techniques to totally eliminate terrorists from the country. See The Ultimate Terrorist Elimination Solution for details on how we can do this using technology that exists today. And we can do it with nearly 100% certainty without invading people’s privacy. Heck, if our war is on terrorism and our purpose is to eliminate it, isn’t the best way to eliminate the terrorists from the country? Or is it better to inconvenience everyone (and destroy our economy) so that the terrorists can continue to live among us? The WTC bombing was a distraction. If we focus our resources on air safety instead of terrorism, we’ve just made the terrorists job even easier. Instead, we must focus on a zero-tolerance program for terrorism as a whole.

Most promising ideas

If it were my decision, I’d put together several small teams of people with complementary backgrounds and have them brainstorm ideas, and solicit input from the public as well. Then I’d implement the simplest easiest ideas first so that flying is the safest form of transit. Here are some of my favorite ideas…a combination of very high-tech and very low-tech (some we can do tomorrow at very low cost; we have the technology to do them all today):

  • Install a secure cockpit double-door system on existing aircraft so that pilots are isolated from passengers (just like on El Al)
  • Instruct pilots never to come out of the cockpit in the event of a terrorist attack (just like on El Al)
  • Just copy what El Al does, hook, line, and sinker. Don’t re-evaluate. Just copy everything now, evaluate later which procedures, if any, to modify. There is no sense in trying to invent systems that haven’t been tested when we can implement a system right now that has proven to work. If you do this quickly, it can restore passenger confidence. Take too long and there is a big economic ripple effect.
  • In the event of a terrorist attack, pilots should be instructed randomly select one or more procedures to re-gain control over the aircraft. These procedures could include: (a) tell the passengers to buckle up, and then do random high-G force maneuvers, (b) dump the cabin pressure (allow pilots to over-ride the limiting valve in an emergency situation), immediately take the jet to 15,000 feet and land the plane at the nearest airport (c) gas the cabin with sleeping gas, etc. Having an extensive set of “procedures” (signal the sky marshal, de-pressurize, gas, G-force, etc) and allowing the pilots to choose which procedure and in which order is the most effective because it is harder for a terrorist to prepare if he doesn’t know what he’s going to be hit with next.
  • Require pilots to have lie detector and/or brain fingerprinting once a year (to avoid the Egyptian air disaster)
  • Let police officers fly for free if they carry a gun (with low-velocity ammo) and handcuffs on board
  • Give crew members handcuffs
  • Adopt a “there is no such thing as a live hostage” policy
  • Allow pilots to carry a gun if they are certified (what’s the downside)
  • Stop disarming the passengers…terrorists aren’t going to attack people with silverware. All we are doing is taking ridiculous measures that disarm the public and leave the terrorist armed. A terrorist can easily bring in a sharpened plastic credit card. And we’ve disarmed everyone on the plane to make the terrorist’s task even easier than it was before!!
  • Forget the curbside check and parking restrictions. This just unnecessarily and expensively inconveniences passengers and closes just one small way a terrorist can attack. Not worth it. If we’re searching the cars before they enter the parking structure, isn’t that sufficient?
  • Require at least one plainclothes federal sky marshal on every flight. Assign them to flights such that the marshal doesn’t know in advance what plane he will be on. The sky marshal can carry any FAA-approved weapons and a very small oxygen-canister. To be certified, you must pass FBI screening, periodic lie detector tests and brain fingerprinting (a 100% accurate “knowledge” detector that is impossible to fool…as seen on the brain fingerprinting segment on 60 Minutes), and special training.
  • Instruct passengers that in a terrorist situation, they may make any decision that they believe will minimize loss of life. For example, change the official pilot’s welcome message to be something like this (this is from an actual United Airlines commercial flight…passengers applauded and some cried after they heard this):
  • “First I want to thank you for being brave enough to fly today. The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane. As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports. They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close. Until they do that, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you. Once those doors close, we only have each other. The security has taken care of a threat like guns with all of the increased scanning, etc. Then we have the supposed bomb. If you have a bomb, there is no need to tell me about it, or anyone else on this plane; you are already in control. So, for this flight, there are no bombs that exist on this plane. Now, the threats that are left are things like plastics, wood, knives, and other weapons that can be made or things like that which can be used as weapons. Here is our plan and our rules. If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together. Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them. Throw it at their faces and heads so they will have to raise their hands to protect themselves. The very best protection you have against knives are the pillows and blankets. Whoever is close to these people should then try to get a blanket over their head–then they won’t be able to see. Once that is done, get them down and keep them there. Do not let them up. I will then land the plane at the closest place and we WILL take care of them. After all, there are usually only a few of them and we are 200+ strong! We will not allow them to take over this plane.”
  • Put pepper spray in in the oxygen mask compartment. In the event of a hijacking, and in the event that other measures have failed, open the compartment. Again, the order of counter-measures should be completely at the discretion of the pilot.
  • Iris-screen each passenger and crew member to board the plane (right now, you can easily switch your boarding pass after you get it). Disallow people to fly on the FBI “suspect” list (flying is not a right!). If you are a sky marshal, the iris scan will also indicate whether you are allowed to carry a weapon on board.
  • People who are on the FBI’s “suspect” list can still fly if they pass a brain fingerprint for terrorism. The test takes about 1 hour. Allow no more than two “at risk” people on any given flight, search them more completely, and completely disallow passage to people who are high risk (according to the FBI).
  • Require something like SAFE mode on new aircraft that are capable of category IIIC landings, where, if a pilot has determined that the integrity of the cockpit has been breached, either pilot can actuate this mode which will land the plane at the nearest safe airport (the pilot will still get to pick from a limited number of airports and runway approaches suggested by the computer). Even if the SAFE mode had a 2% failure rate, this is still far far preferable than leaving the cockpit empty or in the hands of a terrorist who could use the plane as a bomb.

Current status

I’ve received over 17,000 page views of this web page and received over 300 e-mails. I’ve had a number of prominent people tell me they love and would forward it to the FAA and DOT. I’ve upgraded the page with the best ideas from AnchorDesk readers (some remarkably low-tech but very effective and wouldn’t inconvenience passengers at all), and offered to send the e-mail archive of ideas to the FAA.

Unfortunately, no one from the FAA, Department of Transportation, airline, or jet manufacturer has contacted me and asked for the e-mail archive. A few of these techniques (suggested by readers) would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers, would cost next to nothing to implement, could be implemented virtually immediately, and result in a much higher confidence of safety than ever before. Yet they are not being considered by anyone that I’m aware of. This is unfortunate because the repercussions are huge layoffs at Boeing, huge layoffs at major airlines, major federal expense bailing out the airlines ($24B) ….all (possibly) completely unnecessary. Not only that, but those layoffs will have a domino effect on other industries, putting more downward pressure on the economy.

The changes that have been implemented by the FAA would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers. Any group could use the exact same technique as used by the 9/11 terrorists tomorrow and the new security measures wouldn’t stop them. Many of suggestions on this page would have had a high likelihood of having prevented this tragedy. Why we continue to implement measures that we know wouldn’t have worked when there are cheaper, more effective, and more convenient methods is beyond me. Why we don’t try some of the simpler ideas below is beyond me. What are we afraid of? Let’s try it on a controlled situation first, and if that works, on a few planes. Now!

Things to keep in mind when reading the article below:

  • The ideas below are significantly improved and simplified from the original idea described on ZDNet and the SJ Mercury Times.
  • The ideas below include ideas from several hundred people who wrote me to offer suggestions/improvements/other ideas, as well as a few of my own ideas.
  • No method is perfect. No one single solution will completely solve the problem. Listed below are many simple independent steps we could take without impacting innocent travelers. Some can be implemented today. Some can be required on all new planes. Some can be easily retro-fitted on existing planes.
  • Some ideas below can be done partially and still have a significant effect.
  • SAFE mode is only one solution .

I don’t get it… We just had over 5,000 people die, 2 buildings destroyed, one badly damaged. Our reaction is to take steps that would not have made any difference at all in preventing the methods used by the attackers!!?! HUH?!?! Why aren’t we implementing 5 things that would have (or had a high probability of having) made a difference in the 9/11 attack? Instead, we implement things like stopping international flights, eliminating curbside check-in, and so on.

Net result of our current tactics:

  • virtually zero impact on the hijacking method we just saw (which would not have been impacted at all by the new restrictions)
  • major inconvenience to air travelers
  • major negative financial impact to the airlines (by making flying so unattractive with 3 hour lines, etc you reduce demand for air travel)
  • major negative impact to our economy (our own people can’t get back in, no international trade, etc.).

A trained hijacker can slit your throat with a credit card. Are we trying to stop the amateurs or the professionals? If it’s the latter, even grossly beefed up physical checks (and super-expensive luggage scanners) won’t do it.

We should start with those changes (both short and long-term) that make it undesirable to hijack a commercial airliner, yet that do not inconvenience the air traveler. Many such ideas are described below. Some are cost free, remarkably simple, and extremely effective. After we’ve implemented those, if they do not work, then, and only then, should we take more extreme methods. Instead, we’re doing things backward…Doing the stuff that impacts innocent travelers that has no impact on terrorists!

Willie Sutton is famous for saying he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Remove or nullify the booty, and you eliminate the problem.

Consider this: How many bank robberies would we have if every bank teller had a secret button they could press that would instantly (a) seal the doors until the police arrived, (b) call the police, (c) time-lock the safe, and (d) vaporize all the petty cash? None, because at that point, a bank could only be used to secure hostages. But if someone wanted to do that, a department store would be a far easier and safer target for a terrorist. Bottom line: no more bank robberies. And we didn’t have to beef up security in the bank (no security questions or extra guards) 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.

Here’s one idea. Many others are listed below…

SAFE mode

For new fly-by-wire planes with category IIIC landing ability meaning they are certified to land without any pilot assistance (such as Airbus, Boeing 777), require the installation of a “SAFE mode” panic button. If one of the pilots believes that the cockpit or cabin integrity has been breached by a hijacker, the pilot presses the button. This puts the plane into an irrevocable auto-pilot that lands the plane at the safest, nearest airport. The pilot is allowed to modify the choice for airport (within narrow choice limits), approach, runway, and modify the timing with a delay of up to 15 minutes (to allow for runway clearance).

The main points are: (a) the pilots are always in control of the plane, (b) this mode would only be activated in the event of an imminent loss of control of the cockpit, (c) even if activated by accident, this mode is “safe”, (d) this will save the lives of the people on the plane as well as prevent the plane from being used as a bomb.

We might also consider a SAFE mode on non-fly-by-wire planes since at a minimum, it would tie up one hijacker who would have to be an experienced pilot. However, this is a much more speculative cost/benefit value. Much smarter to adopt the other methods in this page.

It’s important there there not be a way to override the system once it is engaged. This technique works because you irrevocably 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.
  • Air traffic control on the ground could initiate a safe mode on a plane, after conferring with the airline to get the codes to enable them to do this. This would only happen if the ground can’t get radio contact with the plane and the plane appears to be heading off-course
  • 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. And the plane would revert to complete autopilot/land at nearest airport mode if there is any attempt to destroy the cockpit controls (the SAFE mode/autopilot computers are safely tucked in an area only accessible from outside the aircraft, i.e., you’ve got to be on the ground and not moving to access it).
  • SAFE mode could be activated automatically upon certain serious events, e.g., entry into airspace far afield from the original flight plan (the pilot would have to enter an override code to prevent actuation of safe mode), attempt to head the plane into a known obstacle (these are already charted by the FAA), loss of cabin pressure, entry into restricted airspace, extended loss of signal from the ground, tampering with the GPS signal (i.e., the signal suddenly seems out of whack with other instruments), lack of pilot responses to regularly sent “challenge” questions, lack of detection of anybody in the cockpit, if a periodic thumb print/retina scan of the pilot failed, etc.
  • When SAFE mode is activated, transmit the FDR and CVR data both to the black boxes on the plane as well as to a ground station. That way, you don’t lose any time hunting for the black boxes. Also, once safe mode is activated, the transponders, CVR, and FDR can not be shut off (this is easier said than done since every system has a circuit breaker for safety reasons, e.g., the transponder catches fire).
  • We also might allow a single accidental button push in the cockpit (or cabin keypad) to be overridden by entering a 3 digit override code within 10 seconds (first time only; the second time could not be cancelled). Otherwise, the only way to disable safe mode is from outside the plane.
  • Once the plane is on the ground, SAFE mode would keep it from taking off again until SAFE mode is reset which would require outside access to the plane (i.e., when it is parked).

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. Here are some things that would have had a high probability of stopping the 9/11 terrorists. I’m NOT suggestion we do all of them. For example, there is a great argument to be made for skipping the G-force tricks (which could injure passengers) and going directly to drop down pepper spray canisters to instantly arm all the passengers in the event of a terrorist threat. So this is a collection of suggestions which can be taken, in whole or in part, as appropriate.

  • Upon signal from a flight attendant emergency button (could be wireless), and pilot verification on video cabin monitors, instruct t he pilot to have the passengers fasten their seat belts, then do some high G-force maneuvers to destabilize the hijackers.
  • Run an instructional video before the flight on terrorism instructing people that in the event of a terrorist attack, to fasten your seat belt while the captain tries to destabilize the terrorists and the crew attempts to disable them (pepper spray, etc). In the event that the crew is unsuccessful, we should instruct people to take any actions they deem appropriate under the circumstances to minimize the loss of life both on-board the aircraft and on the ground. Ideally, the scenario never happens, but the mere idea of a gang attack should reduce the incentive to hijackers. This is cheap to do and we know this works! When the Pennsylvania passengers found out about the WTC, they took actions that saved thousands of lives (had they done what “experts” advised, the White House probably would have been hit).
  • Put pepper spray/mace in the compartment with the oxygen masks. So, in the event that the pilot and crew were unsuccessful in disabling the hijackers, the captain can instantly arm all passengers with pepper spray just by pressing a button! And even if the terrorists put on gas masks, the passengers would have an excellent chance of removing those. This may sound a bit draconian, but the very existence of the pepper spray and a mob attack should act as a very effective deterrent. And nobody is forcing any passenger to use the spray or get involved. And unlike guns, there is no liability that someone will get accidentally killed by issuing all passengers pepper spray.
  • Equip the crew (and perhaps certified individuals as in the point below) with pepper spray, tazers, or some other instantly disabling chemical/device to foil the hijackers. No bullets, no fears of cabin depressurization, no loss of life. This is an easy solution, it can be implemented rapidly. The Wall St. Journal suggested the same thing.
  • If pepper spray and other measures to subdue the terrorists are unsuccessful, and if the terrorists attempt to enter the cockpit and seize control of the aircraft (i.e., only if the aircraft is “at risk” of being used as a weapon), require that the pilots turn off the engines in a hostage/terrorist situation until the terrorists give up their hostages. If all pilots follow instructions, the worst that can happen is that the terrorists limit the destruction to the plane and people on board. While on the surface you appear to put innocent lives at risk this way, if the threat is believable, it creates the deterrence (sort of like mutually assured destruction keeps nuclear powers at bay).
  • Completely isolate the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft with impregnable kevlar doors that cannot be opened in flight for any reason (or a separate pilot entrance only accessible from outside the plane). In an emergency, the pilots would not have access to the plane to manually fix/inspect something; so they would have to rely on a trained crewmember to carry out such a task.This does not prevent the Egyptian air disaster however, where one of the pilots was a terrorist.
  • Isolate the cockpit with a secure double door system. Instruct pilots not to leave the cockpit in a terrorist situation, but instead do G-force maneuvers.
  • Require that the pilots never leave the cabin in a terrorist attack.
  • Either gas or depressurize the cabin as necessary to disable hijackers (both are not without their problems).
  • Enable a special “911″ code on air phones. So anyone could call in a skyjacking and fighters would immediately scramble and be absolutely ordered to shoot the plane down if it did not cooperate.
  • We already know how hard black boxes are to recover. Don’t we ever learn? Why not require a system such as FlightStat to be incorporated in new commercial aircraft?
  • Instruct the flight crew how to turn wine glasses into sharp objects (by breaking them)
  • Put arms (e.g., guns with bullets that can injure people but not penetrate the plane) in the cockpit
  • Scramble military jets at the first sign of a course deviation from the plan that cannot be confirmed with the pilot in 15 seconds (the pilot must utter a secret phrase for the controller to believe him since the pilot might be coerced into responding like nothing is happening. The absence of the “safety phrase” means trouble.) This starts making life very risky, very fast for a terrorist. Planes could be equipped with parachutes to bring them down safely (you can parachute even a 747 to ground safely…it’s been done).
  • If a plane deviates from it’s course, and the pilots cannot be contacted, ATC can call the airline and get a secret code for the plane. The code would immediately cut the engines (perhaps both electronically and physical damage) and parachute the plane down to the ground. Since ATC would control when the system is engaged, the hijacker would not be able to know where the plane will land.
  • Allow individuals (including pilots) who pass a very stringent set of qualifications (training and security clearance) to carry concealed weapons on board a plane that are loaded with bullets that can do bodily harm, but not penetrate the aircraft. Of course, not all flights will have people who are so armed, but nobody would know ahead of time how many such people would be boarding a flight and that information would not be recorded. Terrorists won’t know if there are 20 armed people or none. Terrorists don’t like uncertainty. Over time, as more and more people are certified, the chances of many armed and trained passengers increases.
  • Fingerprint, face recognize (1010 Net/Soft Systems has developed software that can perform the match instantly), or retina scan (the iris is the most accurate biometric indicator; each iris is unique and can be recognized in 1 second; there are no false positives: see http://www.eyeticket.com) everyone who wants to get on a plane so you have positive ID. Anyone noted by the FBI as a significant risk (e.g., pilots and/or foreign nationals with questionable ties) would be denied boarding. After all, air travel isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. I, and other experts (such as the International Air Transport Association), like the iris scanning. And let me assure you, the networking to access a centralized database to do the lookups is available today (for example, my own company, Propel, has easy to use computer networking software technology do do this quickly (sub-second response time), securely, reliably, and scalably over the Internet). Plus the cost of installing such a system is rounding error compared to a single 9/11 incident.
  • Train the pilots and crew on how to handle terrorists and provide them with some sort of weaponry of their choice from an “FAA approved list” (clubs, sticks, guns, tazer, pepper spray, mace, knives, etc. might be put on the list). That way, the crew feels comfortable with their “weapon” of choice, and a hijacker(s) would not know what he’ll be up against since the mixture of approved weaponry will change on every flight depending on what crew is assigned to the flight. Just the thought of being confronted with a completely unknown arsenal should be a very effective deterrent. Above all, there must be a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for terrorism to minimize loss of life (vs. the current “cooperate to minimize loss of life”).
  • Pass out light-duty kevlar vests only to passengers who specifically request them on boarding. In the event of an attack that isn’t disabled by the crew, these passengers would be more able to over-power hijackers with less risk of bodily harm. The downside to this approach is that it may create the impression that jets are so unsafe that you have to have a kevlar vest.
  • Here is my favorite super low tech solution:
  • It would probably be equally effective to give every passenger a two foot long piece of 3/4 inch wooden dowel to use as a club. Less likelihood of an accidental injury, easier to avoid the reach of an actual terrorist’s knife, and every bit as capable of disabling a terrorist when used in numbers, plus the public would probably have less qualms giving everyone a club rather than a knife. Besides, some folks might think being beaten to death is a more suitable end for a terrorist than dying quickly from a well placed knife strike.
  • The clubs could be stowed in an elastic loop on the back of every seat for handy access when needed.
  • Another reader suggested equipping passengers with a rubber hose:

A rubber hose, a bit heavier than a normal garden hose. When I was in college, I just happened for awhile to have been carrying a left over piece from working on a girlfriends car, one night after work it proved to be a good thing I had it. It accomplished far more than a wooden dowel would have, and I doubt those guys suffered any permanent injury. If Nicole had one that night, I”ll bet OJ would have sworn off knives forever.

See the Reader Comment section below for a slew of other ideas.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Airbus has proved that it is OK and safe to have the plane always in a mode where the autopilot takes over if the pilot attempts to do something stupid. Boeing chose the opposite philosophy (“pilots are smarter”). Both work, but the Airbus philosophy is better suited for terrorist situations. It would have avoided the 9/11 disasters. At a minimum, why don’t we require Boeing and other jet manufacturers to adopt the Airbus philosophy that the auto-pilot is allowed to assume control if the pilot does something “stupid.”

So at a minimum, we could make a regulation that all new aircraft have a SAFE mode, since this can be done with modest additional cost and no new technology (e.g., if landing at the closest airport is technically hard, we could just have SAFE mode lock-in the original destination (subject to weather clearance))…it would just enable a feature we’ve had for many many years.

Our current “reaction” to this crisis (increasing security) will not prevent a re-occurrence! In fact, the exact same plan would work again. All we’ve done is put the airlines in deeper financial trouble and created a major inconvenience for millions of passengers. We should either nullify the attractiveness of the plane as described above, or change our procedures so that, for example, we deny air travel to those in an “at risk” group (e.g., pilots with a questionable history).

No one solution will work. We should be implementing solutions that have the potential to have stopped the methods used by the 9/11 gang, not solutions that wouldn’t have made any difference.

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 (http://www.skirsch.com/) has dozens innovative suggestions that the FAA could use as a starting point for discussions.I have no intention of patenting or personally profiting from any of the ideas on this page, I just want the ideas out in the public domain so that the problem can be solved in a way that does not hinder our air travel (or cause us to wait 2 hours in long lines, etc) or negatively effect our economy.

How to find out whether bin Laden really did it… a deal that bin Laden can’t refuse!

This article from Jane’s Security reports the following: “Israel’s military intelligence service, Aman, suspects that Iraq is the state that sponsored the suicide attacks on the New York Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington. Directing the mission, Aman officers believe, were two of the world’s foremost terrorist masterminds: the Lebanese Imad Mughniyeh, head of the special overseas operations for Hizbullah, and the Egyptian Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, senior member of Al-Qaeda and possible successor of the ailing Osama Bin Laden.”

So how do we find out who really did it? If we get the wrong guy, we’ll really look bad. We want to do as much as we can to keep the rest of the world on our side since this will minimize the unintended consequences of our actions.

Of course, one could argue that the Jane’s article doesn’t matter since these guys report to bin Laden. Another reason it doesn’t matter is that bin Laden is a known terrorist, even if he didn’t do this bombing.

Larry Farwell who invented brain fingerprinting. This technique has 100% accuracy. It has never been fooled. Larry told me he can use brain fingerprinting to determine whether bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attack. The FBI has verified that the technique cannot be fooled.

The brain fingerprinting technique can be used on bin Laden as well as the suspects that we have in custody to find out if they are connected to bin Laden and whether they knew about the hijackings.

Some ideas on finding bin Laden

Why not try the low-cost, no-loss-of-life, no unintended consequences approaches first. If they fail, then get more aggressive. Here’s are some ideas:

  • Kill them with kindness (see more on this innovative approach)
  • Send in the equivalent of 100 different “A-Teams” (like the TV show featuring Hannibal, BA, Face, and Murdock) into Afghanistan…400 guys total…. Maybe all Navy SEALs.
  • Increase the reward for bin Laden’s head from the current $5M to $500M. Include US citizenship and change of identity in the offer.
  • Advertise the reward in Afghanistan on radio, TV, direct mail, and the Internet.
  • Infiltrate al Qaeda with secret agents. This is the cheapest, most effective method since it’s much easier to destroy the organization from within if you have perfect intelligence as to what is going on.
  • Try to bribe one of the leaders of al Qaeda into moving over to our side

Ideas for America’s leaders: 3 simple ways to achieve our goals with minimal collateral damage…

1) offer to the Taliban that we’ll give bin Laden a “brain fingerprint” on the attacks to give them the proof they say they want. They say they want proof, so call their bluff… this is proof, not just circumstantial evidence. A mutually agreeable UN representative could administer the test. The US could still offer this even with Bush’s new zero tolerance stance on terrorism because zero tolerance doesn’t mean we can’t try the most straightforward approach first. And if he passes the test, it doesn’t mean we still won’t pursue him since he’s guilty of other things…it just means we’ll have to do it the harder way.

2) you now have all these people who want to join al Qaeda… take advantage of it and enroll a ton of secret agents both to a) find out next moves b) find out where bin Laden is c) kill bin Laden. You could argue we’ve tried that before, but I’d argue, not with the same focus. You could recruit US citizens from Afghanistan, sympathetic Pakistanis, etc… they don’t need much training and in fact, would be less suspicious if they had less training.

3) Put a $100M price tag on bin Laden’s head paid out to you and/or your family and/or your designees (includes American citizenship, identity change, and protection). Advertise heavily in Afghantistan.

Reacting immediately with force will escalate this unnecessarily, causing needless loss of life. There is no time clock that says we have to attack with force tomorrow. We don’t want to ignore what’s happened, but let’s make sure that the “cure” isn’t worse than the disease.

Why not try the simple things above first? They are inexpensive and not likely to result in “unintended consequences.”

I hope we are already doing #2. I don’t know why we aren’t doing #3. And I don’t think we have anything to lose by doing #1 (in fact, #1 may save us a lot of time and lives).

Q&A

Q: So let me get this straight: you want to equip everybody on airlines with wooden dowels to club would-be terrorists?

I think that this is worth trying. But there are a bunch of other simple ideas too (rubber hose instead of sticks, pillows and blankets instead of sticks and hose, pepper spray in the Oxygen mask compartment, arming the crew with FAA approved weapons of their choice, etc). The main point is this: pick a few of these brain-dead simple solutions and try them out first in a mock up of an airplane under controlled conditions (e.g., you get a martial arts expert wearing heavy padding to play the terrorist and recruit people off the street to play the passengers). Some of these scenarios may work. Some won’t. What do we have to lose? As an entrepreneur, I can tell you that seldom does a business plan work out as planned. The best way to accomplish a goal is to come up with some ideas, try them, and see which ones work. I think we may be very surprised what we find out.

Q: Why not just bulletproof the door to the cockpit and lock the pilots in?

The doors were not compromised in these bombings! Having more secure doors would not make a difference unless these doors physically cannot be opened during the flight. Pilots need to go to the bathroom on occasion, although the bathroom could be in the cockpit. The major problem is: what pilot could resist when threatened with the lives of all his passengers unless he opens the door? It’s a bit like the difference between a time-lock safe and a regular safe. The regular safe is bulletproof already, but still vulnerable. The time-lock eliminates the possibility of a robbery because the robber knows that no matter what, the safe cannot be opened by someone. Without the time-lock, robbers will still try. This proposal is analogous to putting a time-lock on a safe.However, a steel door (or double door system) that cannot be penetrated and cannot be opened during the flight, would provide some amount of protection. It would not protect against a renegade pilot (as with Egyptian Air), nor would it protect against a plane being hijacked to Cuba, etc by threats communicated from the cabin. But it might be an interim solution to reduce the attractiveness of hijacking the plane and can be used in combination with the idea above. A double-door system with a “pilots don’t leave the cockpit” policy is the best bet. El Al does this.

Q: What about older planes that are not 100% fly by wire?

Even though most planes are not fly-by-wire (only newer ones like the 777 are), virtually all can land on autopilot so there is still a great deal of control available on existing planes. In fact, by just controlling a few elements (such as altitude) with the computer, we can make it extremely difficult (i.e., virtually impossible) for a hijacker to deviate from the original destination and carry out his plan. That makes a plane a very undesirable target because of the lack of control. The problem with a “forced auto-pilot” is that auto-pilot on most planes is designed to be easily over-ridden by physical force in the cockpit. The trick in implementing SAFE mode in non-fly-by-wire planes would be to determine those key elements that could not be overridden by the pilot that would make control of the plane difficult for a hijacker, but easy for a pilot who is landing where the autopilot has selected. However, even the most modest implementation of safe mode (equivalent to a “stuck” auto-pilot switch) is useful because at a minimum, it could save the plane if both pilots are disabled and at a minimum, it would tie up one hijacker who would have to be an experienced pilot. So with a few wireless controls and a small amount of additional software, you’ve suddenly made it a lot harder to hijack an aircraft! A number of people have written in saying very few planes are CAT III autopilot certified (capable of landing without assistance). That’s true, but it misses the point. In my proposal, the autopilot only “kicks in” if there is a deviation from the intended route and only for a time sufficient to put the plane back on course. And in the most modest implementation, that autopilot is merely advisory; so it requires the crew to be very experienced to keep fighting the plane. You’d also have to override the autopilot circuit breaker once the system was engaged.

Q: Good idea, too hard expensive to implement.

You can start with a modest implementation. In an emergency, the captain hits a button to lock in the autopilot and then removes (breaks off) the autopilot switch. No new technology need be developed.

Q: Good idea but still cannot really deter hijacking. The reason being that once the plane lands on a randomly selected destination, hijackers with the plane and innocent lives in their hands can still demand from the authorities with refuel and fly to their eventual destination themselves or by the pilots under their threats. They are still capable of meeting their objectives.

The plane would need to be seriously disabled somehow upon landing to discourage this in a way that cannot be easily repaired. Once the plane has been damaged, hijackers would be forced to exit the plane eventually. The plane might also be gassed upon landing (or at some time during the flight) as well to disable the hijackers.

Q: The terrorists could just disconnect the safe mode.

The safe mode autopilot would only be accessible from outside the plane (i.e., you can only access it when the plane is parked). If they can do this in flight, they deserve to take over the plane!

Q: What about bad weather?

The pilot could choose one of the alternate destinations. In addition, the pilot would have enough latitude to enable him to steer around weather without the auto pilot engaging, especially if the altitude of the plane is high enough that there is no ground threat, i.e., the pilot could still be given some control over the plane, even after safe mode is enabled, especially if the plane has plenty of fuel and is at a high altitude and there is cabin pressure, etc.

Q: What if the system malfunctions?

If the system inadvertently triggers or cannot be deactivated, the worst that can happen is a landing at the nearest airport. Other than that, it is no different than any other system on the plane…e.g., what if the throttle fails? the flaps? the brakes? the landing gear? the fuel pump? etc. The safest way to do SAFE mode is just simulating a “stuck” auto-pilot button and then move to forced over-ride if hijacking is still a problem. Let’s not over-engineer a solution.

Q: What if the pilot is immediately disabled/killed and the panic button has not been pressed? The hijacker has control of the plane and can fly it. What then?

There are two panic buttons in the cockpit, two in the forward cabin and two in the rear cabin. The chance of a panic button not being pushed are remote. In the September 11 incident, for example, one of the pilots was able to enter in a transponder code saying the plane was being hijacked. The panic button is much easier to press than entering a transponder code, And if there still are incidents, we just increase the number of panic button locations on the plane, or move to wireless panic buttons. So we can observe if the first attempt works, and if not, we just add more refinements to lower the chances of a successful terrorist attack to an arbitrarily low number. A simple refinement is to automatically push the panic button if the cockpit door is breached.

Q: What if one or both pilots are terrorists?

Consider giving a wireless safe mode activator to the sky marshal.

Q: What do you do if two planes in the same airspace have passengers on their flights who hit the panic buttons too many times. How does air traffic control address two planes trying to land at the same airport at the same time?

This is highly unlikely. The pilot could switch to a different airport. Or just circle until he can land. Remember, even when safe mode is active, the autopilot will only kick in if there are significant variations. Circling the airport for an hour would not be considered a significant variation (unless the plane were very low on fuel).

Q: A terrorist could bring on board a device that jams the GPS signals or issues false GPS signals.

Why bother jamming? If the GPS signals are jammed the plane just continues on it’s preprogrammed path to the best of its ability, i.e., it won’t deviate. By jamming the GPS, the hijacker can’t control the plane. So if the plane crashes, the hijacker has just killed himself and the people on board. Given that, why bother to attack a plane in the first place…bringing a bomb into a building would be far simpler. As far as phoney GPS signals, that would be a neat technological trick to try to do accurately since the device would have to receive the very signal it is trying to jam in order to accomplish its objective (get to its target). And the system could be programmed not to believe a GPS that doesn’t make sense (or that doesn’t agree with other instruments). Lastly, GPS’s need clear line of sight to the satellites. Where would the hijackers mount their GPS so that they knew where they were (assuming that they could somehow overcome the “we’re jamming the signal we need ourselves”). Assuming the GPS spoofing is possible, a messy but possible workaround is that, in this case, air traffic control occasionally broadcasts a cryptographically signed announcement of your current location. If it varies by more than [delta] from your GPS-computed location, you know you’re being spoofed.

Q: A terrorist could load explosive into a small plane and ram it into a big building.

Yes, my idea is only for big commercial jets so that commercial airline passengers feel safe. Small planes are much harder to defend against because they could be modified much more easily. Remember, no one single idea is foolproof on its own.

Q: A terrorist could just re-program the flight computer on a 777 to automatically engage SAFE mode and “land” at the White House.

True. SAFE mode could be used against you but the scenario you described could be programmed today…you don’t have to link it to SAFE mode at all. So the implementation of SAFE mode doesn’t make the aircraft any less safe. Overall, you’re much more SAFE with SAFE mode than without it.

Reader comments

I’ve received hundreds of comments, including one from an air traffic controller at the FAA who, while pointing out some issues, nevertheless concluded, “I think you have a valid idea and it is do-able. Good luck building support for what sounds like a good idea. Folks in IT are innovative and I am proud to be a part of that group. Thanks for spending some time thinking about this.”

Here is a link to some of the reader comments I received. I’ve tried to incorporate some of the best ideas I’ve received in the text above. I also have an email archive of hundreds of other messages not posted on my website (available upon request).

Conclusion

The FAA should appoint a small cross-functional team of experts to take a look at ideas such as the ones presented here and make recommendations on how to make planes a less attractive target. The Airline Pilots Association has re-thought their recommendations in light of this tragedy. It’s time for the FAA to do the same.

Congress should ask the FAA for a report summarizing each promising idea that is known by the FAA, the pros/cons (including costs, time, impact), and a recommendation. Let’s focus first on those measures which provide significant deterrence with minimal customer impact. Hopefully, we won’t have to go any further than that. And hopefully we won’t be afraid to arm people when necessary (when the first line of defense methods have failed) and allow them to exercise their judgment on how to minimize loss of life.