September 19, 2001 - "Aboard Flight 564"
-- Peter Hannaford, The Washington Times
As it was at most U.S. airports, last Saturday was the first near-normal
day at Denver International since the terrorist attacks. On United's
Flight 564 the door had just been locked and the plane was about
to pull out of the gate when the captain came on the public address
"I want to thank you brave folks for coming out today. We don't
have any new instructions from the federal government, so from now
on we're on our own."
The passengers listened in total silence.
He explained that airport security measures had pretty much solved
the problem of firearms being carried aboard, but not weapons of
the type the terrorists apparently used, plastic knives or those
fashioned from wood or ceramics.
"Sometimes a potential hijacker will announce that he has a bomb.
There are no bombs on this aircraft and if someone were to get up
and make that claim, don't believe him.
"If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic
knife and say 'This is a hijacking' or words to that effect here
is what you should do: Every one of you should stand up and immediately
throw things at that person — pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses,
shoes —anything that will throw him off balance and distract his
attention. If he has a confederate or two, do the same with them.
Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to floor
and keep him there. We'll land the plane at the nearest airport
and the authorities will take it from there."
"Remember, there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates,
but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.
"The Declaration of Independence says 'We, the people' and that's
just what it is when we're up in the air: we, the people, vs. would-be
terrorists. I don't think we are going to have any such problem
today or tomorrow or for a while, but some time down the road, it
is going to happen again and I want you to know what to do.
"Now, since we're a family for the new few hours, I'll ask you
to turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself, tell them
a little about yourself and ask them to do the same."
The end of this remarkable speech brought sustained clapping from
the passengers. He had put the matter in perspective. If only the
passengers on those ill-fated flights last Tuesday had been given
the same talk, I thought, they might be alive today. One group on
United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, apparently
rushed the hijackers in an attempt to wrest control from them. While
they perished, they succeeded in preventing the terrorist from attacking
his intended goal, possibly the White House or the Capitol.
Procedures for dealing with hijackers were conceived in a time
when the hijackers were usually seeking the release of jailed comrades
or a large amount of money. Mass murder was not their goal. That
short talk last Saturday by the pilot of Flight 564 should set a
new standard of realism.
Every passenger should learn the simple — but potentially life-saving
— procedure he outlined. He showed his passengers that a hijacking
does not have to result in hopelessness and terror, but victory
over the perpetrators.
The Airline Pilots Association, the pilots' union, last week dropped
its opposition to stronger cockpit doors and is now calling for
retrofits. (It's opposition was based on pilot concerns about getting
out easily in emergency situations.) The scandal of easily penetrated
airport security will result in congressional calls for a federal
takeover of the security system.
Previous efforts to reform security procedures and raise standards
have been talked to death. This time, however, no lobbying efforts
must be allowed to prevent airport security from getting the reforms
that are needed: federal operation, rigorous training, decent pay
and no foreign nationals eligible for employment.
Peter Hannaford is a public affairs consultant.
[See another account of this
story from an actual passenger on board this flight, from Denver
to Washington/Dulles, forwarded to me by Myriam Touimer.]