Airliners Need Guards, Not Stewards

October 3, 2001 Commentary

by Edward Jay Epstein

The terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon radically transformed the concept of the airliner. We now know that a 747 jumbo jet, three-quarters full of fuel and traveling at 400 miles per hour, would impart as much explosive energy as a one-kiloton battlefield nuclear weapon. The only certain way to end this threat is to make it next to impossible for even determined suicidal killers to commandeer airliners.

Separating the pilots and passengers with an unbreachable door, while necessary, is not sufficient to protect passengers. Nor are sky marshals on only select flights. Rather, all flights must be protected in an unambiguous way. As daunting as this task sounds, it is possible for the airlines themselves to mount such a defense, even without federal aid. They could even profit by doing so, if only they are willing to reconceptualize air travel. Airlines now employ eight to 12 flight attendants in their passenger cabins. The idea of stewardesses in the early years of aviation was to ameliorate the public's fear of flying. They now have multiple jobs: They hand out magazines and ear-phones, serve food and drink, and dispose of garbage. None of these functions are necessary for passengers to accomplish their mission of flying from one place to another.

Passengers could get their information and instructions about fastening their seatbelts over the intercom. They could get their food, drink and earphones in a package before they board, and they could watch their videos at home. What is necessary now to quiet their fear of flying is the security of the aircraft. To achieve this the airlines must stop serving meals and showing videos, withdraw the eight to 12 stewards, and substitute for them four uniformed guards armed with Tasers, clubs and special guns firing bullets that don't damage planes. These guns also could be "smart" weapons that only fire in the hands of guards. The guards would sit in the seats previously occupied by the stewards and their job would be to ensure that no passenger became unruly. They'd also ensure that no passenger moved toward the pilot's compartment which, as an added level of protection, would be sealed off from the passenger compartment. And the guards could assist passengers in the event of any other emergency, as stewards now do. In this reconceptualization of air travel, passengers would exchange whatever pleasure the drink, food and video service provided them for the comfort of knowing that once they were locked into a sealed tube with a planeload of strangers, armed guards would protect them against suicides, lunatics and terrorists. Most passengers, I believe, would happily make this exchange.

Since the airline would have more seats to sell, and fewer employees in the air, it would not lose by this exchange (assuming the salary they paid the guards was the same they paid their stewards). The flight attendants could be reassigned to ground work, or, if no longer needed, laid-off with severance compensation. Foreign aircraft would have to subscribe to the same regime if they entered U.S. airspace. The new Homeland Security Office could certify their compliance.

The concept is not very different from assigning police to New York City subway cars to prevent muggings. And, once passengers realized that flying is again safe from terrorism, the airlines would again have a viable business.

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