Back to the aviation security stone age

The Egyptair hijacking today has turned out to be a relatively benign event by comparison with what the world’s instant media was preparing its audience for – an attack by Daesh.

The flight was scheduled from Alexandria, Egypt, to Cairo, but a passenger claimed to be wearing a suicide vest and wanted to go to Cyprus, so the captain did what he asked and flew him to Larnaca.

This takes aviation back to the pre-9/11 security stone-age. The captain should have been able to have sufficient faith in the airport security system to know that the claim to be wearing a suicide vest or belt was a hoax, and thus to have refused the request and ordered the cabin crew to restrain the passenger.

The trouble for this Egyptair captain is that he did not have the necessary faith in the Egyptian security system to deny the hijacker his demand, and the reason he didn’t is because of the successful sabotage of a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321 out of Sharm el-Sheikh in late October last year. Somebody got explosives on board, they were detonated over Sinai, and all on board were killed. So this captain’s decision not to risk the passengers is understandable.

It may be that Egypt has beefed up its airport security since Sharm el-Sheikh – especially the screening of employees as well as passengers, but if the crew’s faith in the security system is still not there, hijackers will continue to be able to make demands on aircraft commanders, and the captains, like this one, may feel they have to comply with the demand, just in case the hijacker’s claim to have control of explosives is true.

A suicide vest or belt that could bring an aircraft down would be detected by even the most cursory airport security checks. If crews have lost faith in the security system to this extent, this sort of event could occur regularly.

27 thoughts on “Back to the aviation security stone age

  1. Completely disagree with your comment on the Captain’s decision to divert. As an Airline Captain, I may have taken the same decision as the one on Egyptair. Also I shall note, and put it to you David, that it’s rather easy to analyse from a comfortable seat behind the computer isn’t it? Try sitting on the left seat of a jet and making the decision. In my humble opinion, that Captain made a decision based on what the safest option was for everyone on board and potentially on the ground also.

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    • But I completely agree with you that the captain made an understandable decision under the circumstances. What worries me is that Egyptair pilots have lost faith in the security system in their own country to such an extent that they believe a passenger could get through security at Alexandria wearing a suicide belt or suicide vest. That should be impossible. Egypt needs to win back belief in the effectiveness of its security system.

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      • So if you were the pilot, would you ‘honestly’ take chances and risk people’s lives
        I wouldn’t
        by the way I find your comments are damaging

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  2. David,

    I fly in that region frequently. I would have absolutely no faith in the security measures in countries where even a qualified accountant earns just £3,000/year. I would have complete and full faith in our brilliant and professional cabin crew to assess the situation and act/manage as best as they can accordingly.

    Obviously I can’t tell what we are instructed to do under such circumstances, but I will say that the Egyptian captain did not contradict our instructions. I suspect your criticism is out of pace with current training methodology (regardless of whatever value one may attach to it).

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  3. If an aircraft diverts for a drunk, why not for a POTENTIAL bomber, Descend to make the potential explosion less of a risk to an airframe and get on the ground where the necessary specialised help may be. Can you imagine the furore there would have been if the crew had ignored him and he DID have a bomb. I do agree with you David that there must be a certain nervousness about confidence in the security at the moment and taking the decision to the one of least risk must be applauded.

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    • I understand this captain making this decision out of an Egyptian airport. His lack of faith in the Egyptian security system, since the Sharm tragedy, is understandable. But it is awful that an Egyptian crew has so little faith in Egyptian security that they believe it is entirely possible for a passenger to get through security at Alexandria wearing a suicide vest/belt.

      Suicide vests/belts containing sufficient explosive to damage an aircraft are bulky and could not be missed even in a cursory security check. If the captain believed it could still have been an insider job, that is a horrifying indictment of the situation in Egypt’s air transport industry.

      But with the whole world as jumpy as it is right now, I understand the captain’s decision.

      Having said that, if this is how things are now, every claim of control over explosives by a passenger/hijacker from now on will result in a successful hijack because the crew mistrusts the system. This is exactly the kind of societal destabilisation Daesh aims to create. That cannot be allowed to happen.

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      • Aside from all the other problems here (noted by everyone else who commented): You seem to be assuming that the passenger would’ve taken the vest through security himself. Who says so? Why couldn’t he pick it up from an accomplice once airside?
        Such assumptions are, when commentating, naive and, when flying, potentially dangerous.

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  4. Without talking to the crew, it is hard to say what the pilots thought about the state of airport security and their belief, or lack thereof, that a suicide vest could make it on the plane. However, it is clear that no matter what the state of airport security, while the airplane is in flight, the crew has the power to take whatever actions they believe are necessary to protect the aircraft and everyone on it. Given the outcome, I can’t fault their decisions.

    Another thing to consider is that airport security, no matter how effective, is not perfect, in large part because it depends on the actions of a number of organizations to make it work, and the people who are in those organizations may be motivated to exploit the weaknesses of the system. Just this week there was yet another story of an airport worker, this time a Delta employee in Florida, who allegedly circumvented security by entering a terminal from the tarmac area with a backpack filled with almost $300,000. What’s worse, he may have done this several times in the next few months. In this case, the accused was apparently motivated by a small amount of money in order to smuggle a large amount of money into a secure area. The contents of the backpack could have easily been something much lighter than $300K, and much more explosive.

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  5. I believe the same would have happened even at the tightest security in the world
    YOU MUST NOT TAKE CHANCES WHEN IT COMES TO PEOPLE’S LIFE

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  6. They are lucky they didn’t flame out and go for a swim because if this had happened in the USA with the normal fuel loads for no alternate airport with VFR weather forecast for the arrival time they wouldn’t have been carrying enough fuel to triple the flight milage –

    HBE – CAI = 101 NM

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=HBE+-+LCA&DU=nm&SU=mph

    HBE – LCA = 309 NM

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=HBE+-+CAI&DU=nm&SU=mph

    And that is based on taking off and going straight to CAI and not diddling around discussing with the perp whether he really has a bomb and where he wants to go all the while fuel is going out the tailpipe going the wrong direction.

    If MS181 had a domestic USA fuel load they must have blocked in at LCA on fumes because in the USA you are almost at bingo fuel sitting at the gate still loading the passengers.

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  7. It’s all a case of risk assessment Mr Learmount. I note your tweet saying that if pilots played “What if?” games we would never get airborne.. In this circumstance you have two options:

    A) Follow YOUR suggested course of action, ignore the potential threat, and risk an entire airliner load of passengers on your hunch that it’s all fake…

    or…

    B) Divert to a major airport, with security services in attendance, and attempt to get the passengers off ASAP. If the “bomb” goes off then at least at ground level some passengers have a chance of surviving the blast.

    Seriously, you’d go with option A? May I suggest that virtually every professional pilot I know (And I know a lot) would go for option B as the safer of the two options.

    For you to suggest otherwise suggests it has been a long time since you’ve been in command of an aircraft, and your journalism has skewed your views to something bordering on reckless, and not representative of professional pilots worldwide.

    We don’t play “What if?”.. We take measured risk assessments hundreds of times per flight to help us decide the safest course of action.

    To claim that doing so takes “Aviation back to the Stone Age” beggars belief…

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    • It’s not the captain’s decision that takes aviation security back to the stone age, it’s the situation that came out of the Sharm sabotage event: destruction of any faith in the security system in Egypt. If a reasoned inability among crews to trust security travels beyond Egypt and continues in the long term, that harms aviation badly. The answer is to make security trustworthy again, starting in Egypt. The world situation regarding terrorism has not made this task easy, and decisions by captains are going to continue to be difficult for some time because of that.

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      • As mentioned it is easy for you to sit at home perfectly safe and secure and make that analysis. Could you say the same if you were in the air and the buck stops with you? Would you be so bold as to put all your faith in people and a system that is fallible to say the least. To say no one could get through with explosives is ludicrous as you accept yourself it has already happened! I fly out of Heathrow and I have lost count of the times I’ve seen items go through security careening that breach the current regulations, people are only human and therefore make mistakes. It is true to say because of current practice a potential terrorist or hijacker would be taking a substantial risk to try and smuggle something on board but that is not to say that system is bullet proof. Without a shadow of a doubt certain individuals and organistatiins are probing airport security measures constantly looking for signs of weakness and in my humble view the measures taken at the airport are more to give the general public a sense of safe being whilst the real anti terrorist work is carried out by the security forces of each country. Once that fails I don’t believe it is hard to bypass airport security. Without a doubt there are certain individuals who would seek to do us harm working within the airport structures at various levels and I certainly don’t want to give ideas away but from my own experiences of airport security it would not be difficult to bypass airport security altogether if there were people inside. Despite this most incidents of hijacks, statistically speaking, are done not by terrorist organisations but by lone individuals with either mental problems or their own agenda therefore making them incredibly unpredictable. Whether that person had explosives or not the very nature of that individual would be so unpredictable the safest action would be to take the path of least resistance and let the security professionals on the ground trained in negotiations to sort it out. In my view the captain and the whole crew made exactly the right decision and the successful outcome proves it…..

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    • A good post James. I think if you look at Mr Learmount’s CV he has NEVER been in command of a commercial aircraft and was a co-pilot on C130 Hercules for one RAF tour. A very different environment to the one in which we all operate.

      Cleraly, he has no idea of the way that commercial aircraft are operated with possibly hundreds of passengers on board. This shows in his naiive and poorly judged comments.

      He is now back peddling and despite a very clear interview on BBC news where he asserted that the Captain should have ‘known that was impossible’ for someone to have a suicide vest on an aircraft, he is now claiming that he agrees with the decision ……

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  8. David, I find your comments quite alarming. I understand from your bio that you have never flown a commercial jet transport and certainly never commanded a large jet/heavy with 100+ passengers.

    Clearly, you have never had to make command decisions given your very modest aviation background and this is evident in your naiivety with respect to the importance a Captain must place on the safety of his passengers – above all else. If a passenger appeared in the cabin with a very convincing looking suicide belt (from pictures on the internet) no Captain would dismiss it as a possible hoax on the premise that the security at the airport is so good that it can not be a genuine threat. That would be a very stupid and crass decision. It may well have been smuggled on by a ground handling agent who has been bribed serious money to leave in a place on the aircraft. Ever operated out of Egypt – no I suspect not. Money talks in this region.

    To dismiss as a hoax would be negligent in the extreme and is simply not something that current commercial Captains would ever consider. There is nothing lost by treating as a genuine threat, and reacting accordingly. There is a lot to be lost by ignoring and ‘hoping’ it is a hoax.

    Wiith respect, you do not, and never have flown as a commercial pilot. You do not experience the clear inadequacies of poorly trained security screening personnel in many countries around the world so are not really qualified to make sweeping statements about what the Captain should or should not have done. Leave that to the armchair experts of pprune or perhaps you frequent that forum also ?

    If you had some commercial experience and more importantly som command time then you would see the flaw in your poorly judged statement. You have neither and therefore your comments carry no weight or credibility.

    I presume that this will not see the light of day on your website but thought i would commentnin any case.

    Best Regards

    A Current Airline Captain

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  9. This situation is serious, as everyone who has commented has made clear.

    If you check again what I said, I stated that the captain’s decision was understandable under the circumstances. In a reply I confirmed that belief.

    What I suspect people have missed, in the heat of the moment, is that I am criticising the system, not the crew.

    Because of the Sharm el-Sheikh event people – including Egyptian crews – doubt the integrity of their own security system. For good reason.

    In this case, the crew and the passengers are alive, thank God. But the tragedy here is that Egyptian security has failed to establish credibility. If that situation were to transfer to the entire industry worldwide it would be a tragedy for travellers, for airlines, for crews.

    After 9/11 the industry set up a security system on the ground and in the air that has since successfully foiled large numbers of recorded hijack attempts.

    But this hijack attempt succeeded, in that the hijacker was able to make a threat and the pilot had to respond to it by carrying out the hijacker’s request as to the destination.

    The fact that the pilot, for very good reasons, could not trust his own country’s security system is the tragedy here.

    I say again, the pilot made an understandable decision. I will go further and say I, in his shoes, would have done the same.

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    • I have just re-run the interview you gave to the BBC. Your comments were quite clear:

      ‘that Captain who accepted that somebody had a suicide vest ,……should have had sufficient confidence in the security services to KNOW THAT WAS IMPOSSIBLE’

      Are you living in the real World ?

      What Captain in his right mind is ever going to ‘KNOW THAT WAS IMPOSSIBLE’ ? You are clearly completely out of touch, if indeed you ever were in touch given your minimal aviation background.

      You can NEVER have complete confidence in a security screen, it is just not possible. As already stated by a number of posters (all current Captains) the decision to divert was the correct course of action, to merely ignore on a hunch that it is ‘impossible’ is reckless and not how modern jet aircraft are operated.

      You really need to think about retiring I would suggest. You are out of touch, have never operated in the real world of commercial aviation and never held a command on a commercial jet or any other aircraft carrying passengers.

      Your comments, and poor defence of those comments, are an embarrassment to the professionals that operate daily having to make difficult decisions in high pressure environments. To sit at your desk as an armchair expert is insulting. It is high time you toddled off to the allotment.

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  10. Learjet under flak ???…Jolly Good Show by NAMED posters!!!. BRAVO!!!…Well said all!!!. You make this website better for bothering your arses to comment with acute intelligence. A bloody rare FIR airspace is Learmount in the Muppetsphere of http://WWW.MEMEME. You make democracy great. Be that, a constitutional monarchy or republic. Luckily we are in LEARSPACE without Theocracy-allegedly.
    Being a current B-777 captain Pax/F in general and an Irish Brussels resident in particular, I experienced, actual on the ground, terrorism in Brussels on its ghastly periphery on March 22 @ 09:11CET/08:11Z at 700 metres proximate from Maalbeek Metro station and never in Ireland in my youth, despite statistical probability of media certainty.
    Statistics are 100% when they happen to you, either on the periphery or dead centre.
    As a relatively regular visitor to Egypt for recreation-scuba in general and Egyptair B-777 Cairo simulator-pre 2003 model- business on Dec 14 2015 in particular, I know the region slightly. Very nice people, sublime food and wine, in a tough neighbourhood, from my limited experience. Egyptair-like Saudia is a fly-dry carrier. We have forgotten an Egyptian head-case with a “marital” demise issue on MS-181 on March 29 2016 with a British failure of another case of BA2069
    I agree with David L. The trust deficit perceived by the Captain. But he was liberated from choice by his experience. And as always, if you can’t stop a perp at the gate the pax cabin nearly fatal in consequence.
    As for Learmount’s post-alleged, “Thank God”?…I ask, which one ?…Luckily for me, I’m a simpleton, of being an acute moron, by being Boeing Orthodox and incontrovertible to Airbus conversion. If I were a convert, I’d be a zealot. Still, who knows the human mind ?…
    On Dec 29 2000 BA2069, operated by a B-744, departed London Gatwick, with an “NHS KNOWN” mentally disturbed pax, enroute to Nairobi.
    Captain William Hagan and First Officers Phil Watson and Richard Webb were awarded a Polaris Award in 2001. Hagan was also given the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) People of the Year award.
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4218168/Video-of-moments-after-BA-pilot-wrestled-brhijacker-from-controls.html

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    • Mr Connolly, your mail has some very valid points and I agree that it’s always best to choose the safest option.. but your comment lost most of effectiveness due to it’s long and rambling nature.
      How on earth is ‘Luckily we are in LEARSPACE without Theocracy-allegedly’ a relevant (or even coherent) comment?? Similarly, your waffling and grammatically poor ‘I’m a simpleton, of being an acute moron…’ makes no sense at all. It is, however, undeniably accurate.
      As a comedian, you make a very good airline pilot.

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  11. […] “The trouble for this EgyptAir captain is that he did not have the necessary faith in the Egyptian security system to deny the hijacker his demand, and the reason he didn’t is because of the successful sabotage of a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321 out of Sharm el-Sheikh in late October last year. Somebody got explosives on board, they were detonated over Sinai, and all on board were killed. So this captain’s decision not to risk the passengers is understandable,” opined aviation safety expert David Learmount in a controversial blog post. […]

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  12. […] “The trouble for this EgyptAir captain is that he did not have the necessary faith in the Egyptian security system to deny the hijacker his demand, and the reason he didn’t is because of the successful sabotage of a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321 out of Sharm el-Sheikh in late October last year. Somebody got explosives on board, they were detonated over Sinai, and all on board were killed. So this captain’s decision not to risk the passengers is understandable,” opined aviation safety expert David Learmount in a controversial blog post. […]

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  13. A question to you Mr Learmount, do you suggest that if a similar situation is to occur from a flight originating from USA/European airports -based on your investigative works in transportation – you would encourage captain to ignore threat and control the presumed hijacker as hoax?
    That question is regardless of what you think about the state of security in the airport

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  14. My final comment on this debacle of a blog. Please stop referring to ‘the pilot’ . This again shows that you are out of touch and have spent too much time in journo circles.

    There are a minimum of 2x pilots on a modern jet airliner. They are referred to as the Captain and First Officer.

    The vast majority of flight decks have a very open CRM culture, input from the First Officer is encouraged and very welcome, it is ultimately the decision of the Captain but please stop ‘the pilot’ reference, it just smacks of a lack of awareness of how modern jet transports are operated which brings us full circle to your BBC comments.

    Best Regards

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    • I’m pretty sure that most people in the aviation community, including David, are aware that there are 2 pilots. Now, you’re just nitpicking his wording and being obtuse.
      Aren’t you a ‘Current Airline Captain’?
      Surely, you have better things to do than have an argument on the internet. Or perhaps not. 😉
      Clearly, you need a cookie.

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      • Gem, thank you for your comments. I would suspect that you are not a commercial pilot from your comments.

        I agree that is nitpicking, but we in the industry get very tired of the journo line of ‘the pilot’. It is not something that you will hear within the industry, and when we hear it used, it immediately gives the impression that someone is out of touch, or really has little idea of how modern airliners are operated.

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  15. Still, there’s dumb and dumber. Dumb was hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa of Egypt. Dumber was Benn Innes, the “selfie pax” of MS-181 of England, ironically employed in “Health and Safety”. Seif exhibits a vacant look of “lights on upstairs, but nobody home”. Well, he probably won’t be in what used to be home for the next 20+ years after his romantic overture to his Cypriot ex-wife. Not a good advert for marriage counselling. Luckily for him, he’ll be helping the Greek Cypriots with their enquries and not the Turkish Cypriots.
    Ben has the grin of a true Darwinian proving the missing evolutionary link. But the really worrying thing for his fellow Britons is that he is a possible voter!!!???. Now that is a truly terrifying prospect!…
    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/egypt-hijacking-passenger-pictured-grinning-7649162

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  16. If the ‘idiot’ had shown his ‘vest’ land- or air-side at LHR, the best outcome for him would have been arrest at gunpoint and some quality time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Even mentioning the word ‘bomb’ would have the same effect. I am sure Mr L would not have the temerity to call the reaction of the Met officers ‘understandable’. I challenge him to declare, publicly, that the Crew’s actions were 100% correct.

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