What to Do if There’s an Attacker on Your Plane

Jul 12, 2017

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First, the good news: Odds are you’re more likely to die from a car accident (one in 114), bee sting (one in 63,225) or lightning strike (one in 161,856) than in an airborne terrorist incident (10,408,947 to one).

Now, the bad news: Though exceedingly rare, hijackings happen. On top of that, airline passengers have been freaking out mid-flight with alarming regularity. Recently, a 23-year-old passenger on a Delta flight from Seattle to Beijing attacked a flight attendant and tried to enter the cockpit before passengers and crew subdued him.

So, if an incident erupts on a flight you’re on, what should you do?

Airlines don’t offer much guidance. In fact, most carriers contacted by The Points Guy for this story politely declined comment on how passengers should react in a dangerous situation. Even the Department of Homeland Security begged off. “Unfortunately, there is no public guidance on this topic we can provide,” a spokesperson told us after much back and forth.

Only Southwest was forthcoming — sort of. In the event of a “disruptive passenger situation,” a spokesperson wrote: “Flight attendants may solicit assistance from passengers, and pilots may choose to divert the aircraft to an alternate destination to get immediate assistance from local authorities.” Southwest’s crews, like most airline personnel, are trained to defuse situations and required to take an annual self-defense course.

Still, we wanted to know: In a threatening in-flight scenario, what should you do?  We turned to someone on the front lines — a flight attendant, who asked to keep her name and employer private. Her advice: Dial back the derring-do.

“Playing the hero can escalate the situation rather than helping. Follow your crew’s instructions. Flight crews are trained extensively in self-defense, how to effectively use the tools around us to stop an attacker (i.e. wine bottles, coffee pots, etc.), how to keep the cockpit safe and how to restrain someone should that become necessary.”

The crew on Delta’s beleaguered flight 129 from Seattle, she added, “brilliantly put all of these skills to use and were able to restrain the person in question, preventing him from causing further harm to others, himself and the aircraft.”

Airline security consultant, Neil Hansford agreed, stating: “The primary function of the cabin crew is as a safety resource. The catering function is an extra.” Hansford, the chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, a consulting firm that works with airlines around the world, also advised holding back on heroics in a hijack situation.

“Unless you have had specific training in the military or police, this isn’t recommended,” he said, noting, “In the very litigious US, the hijacker may sue you if you damage him/her.”

Exclusively for TPG, Hansford shared his tips of what you should do — and not do — if you find yourself in a hijack situation:

  1. Maximize your own personal safety by not drawing attention to yourself; blend in with other passengers.
  2. Stay silent and don’t even engage with other passengers except to reassure family, etc. Don’t make yourself a potential hostage.
  3. Unless the hijacker attempts to open a door in-flight, stay out of the melee.
  4. Fly with legacy airlines that have higher levels of cabin crew training and a long-established safety and security culture instilled over decades.
  5. If you are trained in the military or police, you may pick your moment — but only if you are still as mobile and fit.
  6. Don’t engage in conversation with the hijacker; it’s not your job.
  7. Observe any other passengers who might also be involved as “sleepers” and write down their description and any unique characteristics for investigators when you are released. They could potentially be more dangerous.

It’s no surprise airlines don’t want to educate passengers about how to react in an incident, Hansford said. “All this does is heighten fear and cause anxiety to flying, and once this occurs, our daily lives are changed negatively.”

Airlines, he believes, are generally prepared. “The toughened cockpit door and entry procedures give hijackers little chance to be able to take control of the aircraft, as had happened before this innovation. This was a game-changer.”

Here’s hoping all of this information above is hypothetical.

Have you found yourself in a scary situation while flying? How did you handle it? 

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.

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