When I first heard that a non-pilot had stolen a Horizon Air Dash-8 Q400 and flew around Seattle for an hour, I couldn’t help but be impressed. How could someone who doesn’t have a license to fly figure out how to choreograph that entire event? If you haven’t seen the video, it’s stunning to watch what he did.
It appears that my reaction was not the norm. Judging from the stories I’ve seen and emails I’ve read, many people went into panic mode. This was a national security threat and major changes needed to be made yesterday or we’d face the grave threat of stolen airplanes dive-bombing all over the land! While I don’t doubt that changes could benefit aircraft safety (as is always the case), I just have a hard time seeing this as the huge threat others do.
I think Patrick Smith sums up my view fairly well. Once you start thinking about who could actually pull off something like this, you start to understand that it’s not as big of a threat as some might think. Think about it this way…
- You would need access to a secure area of the airport where passengers can’t go. That means you would need to have a SIDA (Secure Identification Display Area) badge issued by the airport. This eliminates anyone except employees who frequent an airport enough to have been badged at that location specifically. (Here we had a guy who worked for Horizon in Seattle so he had access.)
- The aircraft would need to be in a location where you could easily evade security and other employees. You would also need to be able to avoid other aircraft traffic. (Here the airplane was at the far north end in a maintenance/cargo area that was right near the edge of the runway for easy access.)
- You would need to know how to start up the airplane, taxi it, and then fly it. (Here was a guy who was trained to tow aircraft, so he had better knowledge than most. The rest he figured out possibly through video games, though I’m not sure we know for sure.)
- If you were looking to do damage to people or landmarks as a terrorist might, you would have to have even better flying skills to actually reach your target.
When you think about it this way, the question becomes… could additional security measures help all that much? I’ve seen some shocked to find that airplanes don’t have “keys” that prevent unauthorized access. But that’s proven to be mostly unnecessary because of just how hard it would be for anyone to actually do anything with that airplane if he or she snuck onboard. Of course, this Horizon crash shows that under the right circumstances someone can still pull this off, but it’s exceedingly rare that all the stars align to allow it to happen.
The biggest concern in the news is that a terrorist would sign on with an airline or contractor, go through extensive background checks, get a SIDA badge, learn not only to fly but also to taxi and takeoff, find an aircraft parked in a convenient spot, and then execute the plan to kill a bunch of people on the ground or bring down a landmark. The chances of that happening are incredibly minute for all the reasons already discussed. There are plenty of security checks in place along the way to make this truly unlikely. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it would take a great deal more coordination and work than what happened on 9/11 — bringing some legal box-cutters on to a mostly-empty airplane and hijacking it once in flight.
Perhaps the biggest concern here shouldn’t be terrorism but rather the mental health of people who have access to these areas. It’s the same thing I wrote about in 2015 when that Germanwings pilot crashed his airplane into a mountain and killed everyone onboard. I’d like to put my faith in the background checks as being adequate, but that doesn’t help when it comes to evaluating ongoing mental health issues over time. If there’s one takeaway for me after this, it’s that we need to pay more attention to mental health and well-being in this country, especially at a time when rates appear to be rising. This isn’t news, and this particular incident doesn’t really change anything. It just shines more light on the problem.
Adding additional security to aircraft? Sure, it could be useful to prevent the one-in-a-million chance of something sinister occurring, but it’s hard to imagine that being worth the cost. Still, fear-mongering is easy and it unfortunately gets clicks. I can only hope there’s no knee-jerk reaction to this.