Twenty years after the events of 9/11 — are our inflight security practices making us any safer?

Eleven days after the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, a disturbed individual nearly gained entry to the flight deck of a JetBlue flight from Boston to San Juan. Just feet away from the flight deck door flight attendants fought valiantly against a combative/possibly suicidal passenger. Their goal was to protect passengers, secure a violent threat, and move him away from the most critical area of the aircraft: the flight deck. With this incident well underway the unthinkable happened, the flight deck door was opened and a pilot stepped out in the midst of the fray. With that every protocol, procedure and ounce of common sense and security for that flight went out the window.

On September 22, 2021, JetBlue flight 261, was due to land at its final destination in San Juan, when passenger Khalil el-Dahr, seated in seat 6A leapt from his seat and rushed towards the flight deck screaming “shoot me” in Spanish and yelling about Allah, according to the FBI Affidavit, by the case agent. The flight attendants attempted to corral and redirect the passenger, away from the last place in the world you want an unstable person. As the passenger fought with flight attendants –that are not paid nearly enough to do this– the unthinkable happened, a pilot opened the flight deck door and stepped out. Seeing this, el-Dahr pulled one flight attendant by the tie, grabbed the overhead compartment for leverage, and attempted to kick his way through to the flight deck. After struggling with the passenger, flight attendants were able to restrain him and move him to the rear of the aircraft. The passenger was able to break one set of flex cuffs that were placed on him compliments of an off-duty flight attendant. It took another set of flex cuffs and four seat belt extenders to secure the passenger to his seat.

Bulletproof Doors

After 9/11, as a security measure for just such a situation, the flight deck doors were replaced with locking bulletproof doors, touted as nearly unbreachable. The enhanced doors cost the airlines between $92.3 million and $120.7 million over a ten-year period. There is very specific protocol in place to make sure that flight crew do not open the door during incidents or when the aircraft is vulnerable to avoid the plane being hijacked and turned into a missile. These barriers and safety measures work well when used. In the testing phase elite SWAT Teams were brought in to see if they could breech the doors using their standard gear. They failed. Put simply, the doors and procedures keep us safe when they are followed, but when they are eschewed for convenience or apathy, all of the safety measures put into place are all for naught.

Pre-incident Indicators

As with most violent altercations or criminal assaults, the events on JetBlue flight 261, are not completely without warning. The initial assault took place 45 minutes prior to landing, but at 1:10 prior to landing, el-Dahr’s demeanor was noted as angry after being unsuccessful at attempting to place a telephone call, while in flight. His behavior after the failed call was significant enough to make its way into the Affidavit, but did it makes its way to the flight officers? We don’t know, but agitation and anger are often pre-assaultive indicators and are not to be ignored.

Federal Air Marshals

In use of force situations like flight 261there are things that went well, and things that did not go so well. Typically, an After Actions Review (AAR) is conducted to iron out anything that needs improvement. Many things come to mind when reading the Affidavit about this incident. First, this seems like a textbook case for Federal Air Marshals to deal with, but where were they? The answer is, there simply are not enough. 20 years after 9/11, the numbers are low due to critics within the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office, burnout leading to transfers to other agencies and an increasing attrition rate. The Federal Air Marshal Service seems to be handcuffed by an ever-decreasing budget, and ever-increasing threats to respond to in the air and on the ground.

Equipment Failure

In the absence of law enforcement, the flight attendants bravely engaged the assailant, but their equipment was not up to the task. The first set of flex cuffs that were applied broke while the assailant struggled. Flex cuffs are made of hard plastic, the more money you spend the harder the plastic is to break, this is not a time to go with the lowest bidder. When it’s for all the marbles at 30,000 feet, flight crews deserve the best equipment and training that can be supplied.

To eliminate access to the flight deck by violent actors, there is an additional measure that should be implemented, secondary barriers. This would add another layer of protection for the flight deck and would allow the pilots to access the lavatory without depending on human factors and potential mistakes. These barriers, often made of wire mesh, have already been installed throughout two major airlines at a nominal cost.

A good security program relies on layers or concentric circles of security. When one fails, threats are located and dealt with at the next circle and that is what happened on flight 261. A quick-thinking crew stopped a loan threat, but what happens when there are five, well trained, Al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists and that flight deck door pops open? Flight 261 was left to the fate of its last line of defense on September 22, 2021. It’s time to evaluate the other security measures and find out why they were absent or failed in this incident. Flight 261 should stand as a warning that it is time to demand better.