Last updated: 09:00 AM ET, Fri October 23 2015

Is Security On Every Flight Feasible?

Features & Advice | Rich Thomaselli | October 23, 2015

Is Security On Every Flight Feasible?

The headline from earlier this week was attention-grabbing, for sure, but certainly not surprising, even if you have the slightest inclination or involvement in airline travel.

Two people on a Southwest Airlines flight, one of them a woman, came to blows over a reclining seat. In what Southwest described in a statement as a “rapidly escalating situation,” a verbal dispute turned physical and forced the pilot to return to Los Angeles International Airport, where the flight had taken off just 15 minutes earlier, and make an emergency landing. The woman claimed the man choked her as the argument grew out of control.

Incidents over reclining seats, loud music, babies crying and overgrown adolescents with drinking problems aren’t just on the rise, they’ve become prevalent on aircraft. So forget terrorism and the federal air marshal program for a moment. The question that some have thrown around is, can and should airlines have a security officer on every flight?

The answer is, while in theory it certainly is a noble idea, in reality it could never be done.

“It’s simply impractical,” says Anthony Roman, an airline security expert and the founder of the Long Island, N.Y.-based security firm Roman & Associates. “The cockpit crew’s primary responsibility is to fly and manage and navigate the aircraft, and remain secure within the flight deck environment. Flight attendants are primarily responsible for the safety and welfare of passengers in flight.”

Roman said flight attendants do receive some training in how to handle on-board incidents, but common sense says a 5-foot-8, 125-pound flight attendant is simply not going to be able to physically handle a 6-foot, 200-pound drunken man unless her name is Ronda Rousey.

So while a security officer could certainly help quell situations that appear to be getting out of hand, and have the strength – and, perhaps, the tools – to physically intercede where flight attendants might not be able to, it’s impractical to think airlines could hire such an officer for every flight.

“Flight attendants are not law enforcement officers,” Roman said. “They have the authority to restrain unruly passengers. They do have the zip tie restraints and other methods. Whether other passengers make the decision to intervene and help is their own choice. But beyond that, I don’t see an immediate answer to the problem.”

In large part, it’s a numbers game as well. There are approximately 30,000 takeoffs and landings every day across the United States. To think that the airlines could afford to have someone on every one of those takeoffs and landings – and operate at peak efficiency – is unrealistic.

As it stands now, there are approximately 4,000 federal air marshals flying anonymously every day. The exact number is classified, Roman said, as are routes and flights. It is costing about $800 million a year. The number of federal air marshals obviously doesn’t come close to the number of actual flights, but Roman says it’s still a worthy program.

“Intelligence reports reflect terror groups still are experimenting and planning ways to get explosives on aircrafts. That has not stopped, the desire has not stopped,” he said. “So to combat that you need concentric rings of security that include screening and intelligence, physical security, perimeter security, police, National Guard, and the last line of defense is the air marshals. My opinion is the air marshals are absolutely important as the final piece of that concentric ring.”


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