Time to Arm Airline Passengers?

As opposed to the increasingly absurd steps being taken to identify and keep weapons off commercial aircraft, it would be advisable and practical to identify and empower volunteer counter-terrorists among the passengers, initially at least on domestic flights or on international flights by domestic carriers. This could even extend to arming those passengers on the aircraft.

Of the four planes hijacked on 9-11, only in the case of  United 93 was the death toll limited to only the flight crew and passengers. There the passengers fought back, forcing the terrorists to crash the plane in a field in Pennsylvania rather than into an occupied building in the nation's capital. In December 2001, shoe-bomber Richard Reid, at 6'4" and over 200 pounds, had to fight off two female members of the flight crew of American Airlines Flight 63 while trying to detonate a bomb until several passengers jumped in and subdued him. On Christmas day 2009, when underwear-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate his bomb on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, it was a passenger, Dutch film director Jasper Shuringa, who subdued him, allowing flight attendants to douse the flames ignited in the attempted detonation.

In the war against jihadist terror, civilians have on different occasions been the first, the last, and even the most effective line of defense. Recognizing that and expanding and formalizing the role of volunteer counter-terrorist civilians can have more practical benefit for air travel security than does groping septuagenarian nuns or toddlers.

The requirement that decisive action be taken by specifically identified aircraft passengers in the interest of safety is not new. Aircraft passengers occupying exit row seats are routinely queried on whether they are able to perform the "specified emergency duties" that may become theirs in an emergency, including opening the exit door, facilitating evacuation, or even blocking ill-advised passenger attempts to use that exit -- all under flight crew direction.

In admittedly very broad terms, a proposition to utilize designated passenger volunteers can be comparable to the volunteer state militias of early America that would be activated in the event of Indian attacks on civilian settlements. Those militias could and did also come under federal control in certain circumstances. In a joint federal-state program, volunteers can be sought who apply for formal and legally recognized status during air travel.

Qualifications can be set as to age, state of health, physical capabilities, absence of a criminal record, provision of character references, education level, and pertinent background, such as experience in law enforcement, the military, martial arts, or other applicable areas. Volunteers could agree to place themselves under the command of flight crews and to accept any seat they are asked to occupy, in understanding that there could be situations in which the crew would deem it a proper precaution to have such a volunteer or volunteers seated in close proximity to a possible threat. They could also agree to stay alert for the duration of the flight.

Local law enforcement can take applications in much the same way that dozens of states do now for concealed carry handgun permits. State and local police conduct thorough background checks, including of federal databases, to rule out the undesirable or even merely the questionable. Under federal guidelines, states could authorize the volunteer position and possibly even allow indication of volunteer status to be visual on the person's driver's license. As airline passengers are required to show photo identification when checking in, this can be a discreet method of notifying the airline and flight crew, but not the other passengers, of the presence of such volunteers on the flight.

While the use of firearms on aircraft can be problematic in the extreme, there are other weapons more suited to the close-contact confrontations that have happened and may be likely on board. These include clubs, batons, brass knuckles, chemical sprays, or even knives. Some of these, as well as forms of restraints, can be secured under lock and key on board and available only to the flight crew, which may distribute such items to volunteers, even before an event happens. Then, too, such volunteers may prudently be allowed to carry on board, in their own carry-on bags, such items disallowed to other passengers.

Any proposal of this sort will ruffle the feathers of those who trust solely in government to protect citizens who should be non-participants in that effort. Not only do the actions of passengers on United Flight 93, American Airlines Flight 63 (shoe-bomber), and Northwest Airlines Flight 253 (underwear-bomber) counter the wisdom of such an attitude, but in flyover country, Americans have been well-served in countless critical situations by the partnering of local government with volunteers in fire departments, rescue squads, and emergency medical services for a very long time.

In devising the 9-11 attacks, al-Qaeda planners no doubt took into account that on a commercial aircraft, a few men with common box cutters would be the most heavily armed force on board. Today, after a decade, a few determined terrorists without weapons but with a degree of violent physical skill would likely have at least a similar initial edge on flights that don't have an air marshal on board, as we have made a great effort to totally disarm the terrorists' potential victims.

We know that when there is a terrorist attack on an aircraft, no outside help is coming. What will happen will be determined only by facts and the people in the air, so to speak. The presence of volunteers on the aircraft who will stay alert during the flight, will take direction from the crew, are prepared to act immediately, and are willing and capable of physically engaging with an enemy will enhance the security of passengers and crew while presenting an impediment to terror planners and terrorists.

Each full body scanner being deployed at our airports costs between $150,000 and $170,000. In most of the dozens of states that perform background checks for concealed carry handgun permits, the costs of those investigations are fully covered by permit fees averaging less than $200 each. I would also venture that there would not be a shortage of volunteers among the American flying public.