Pilot: What keeps you safe on a plane

Disruptive passenger forces flight to land
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Story highlights

  • Passenger apparently yelled "jihad" and was subdued. And an alleged terror plot last month may have included hijack plans
  • Hijacking a plane post-9/11 is easier said than done, Les Abend says
  • Layer of safeguards, airline personnel training pose challenges to would-be hijackers, he says

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Monday, an unruly passenger rushed toward the cockpit of a United Airlines plane, screaming "jihad, jihad" on a flight that had left Washington Dulles International Airport, according to a government official. The pilot turned the plane around, and passengers subdued the man, who had, the official said, nothing apparent in his background to suggest he has a connection to terrorists.

And last month, officials announced that a potential hijack plan hatched by three men in Brooklyn who allegedly wanted to join ISIS had been foiled. Brooklyn? Who would have thought a terrorist threat would have origins in one of the oldest boroughs in New York?
Les Abend
We don't yet know why the passenger on the Dulles flight Monday behaved in a threatening manner, but for many, reports of it will raise new anxieties.
    After all the security adjustments members of the flying public have endured post-9/11, they once again have to revisit their trepidation over airline travel. But have no fear. Airline crews are by no means cavalier about unruly passengers or hijack threats, but we are very much aware that terrorists remain enamored of the notion of commandeering our airplanes. It's a high-value proposition, more bang for the buck than the average suicide bomb.
    So how can I convince you as my passenger to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight?
    First, as much as we enjoy criticizing, let's give some credit to the intelligence community for uncovering diabolical plots before they materialize, a post-9/11 improvement. Second, despite the fact that the Transportation Security Administration has not made the top 10 list of favorite government agencies, it has served a purpose in protecting the traveling public. Beyond the endless lines at the magnetometers and the ID checks, professionals behind the scenes are engaged in behavior observation.
    If nothing else, the TSA serves to dissuade evildoers. It is by no means a perfect system.
    And from my side of the cockpit door -- well, we have the cockpit door. It is constructed of Kevlar and requires a code for entry. The door can't be opened with just a twist of the knob. In addition, if the entry system fails, a bad guy might be greeted with the business end of a very powerful semi-automatic weapon. The pilot aiming that weapon is intensely trained and motivated; don't try this at home.
    3 men allegedly tried to join ISIS
    3 men allegedly tried to join ISIS

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    3 men allegedly tried to join ISIS 02:17
    Beyond the cockpit, airline crews are updated with security information affecting their operation. Our recurrent training also incorporates the latest intelligence data from the wonderful world of terrorism. All of us, flight attendants included, are trained to various degrees in defensive tactics. (You may want to think twice the next time you consider referring to a flight attendant as a "sky waitress.")
    Procedures are in place that specifically define in-flight threats of all kinds. It becomes a coordinated effort between pilots, airline dispatchers, air traffic control and law enforcement if an onboard situation develops. The philosophy of cooperating with a terrorist is gone with the days of hijackings to Cuba.
    Experienced crews are vigilant. They observe passengers and their behavior. The fidgety man with darting glances that changes his seat will not go unnoticed. A passenger who has no carry-on bag to place under the seat or in an overhead bin will draw attention.
    Is the entire system without flaws? Of course not. But you, as a passenger, can help. How? Take the opportunity to make your own observations. People-watch. Don't remain silent when you perceive suspicious behavior, especially in flight. If you see an unaccompanied bag, wait to see if the owner returns, or just report it.
    And when that cockpit door opens, scan the immediate vicinity for anyone rising from a seat. If the worst-case scenario appears about to occur, be prepared to take action. Don't play by the rules; the bad guys certainly won't.
    For airline crews, it doesn't matter whether the terrorist du jour is called ISIS or al Qaeda. Our job is still to protect our customers. And that makes it business as usual.