FEDERAL FLIGHT DECK OFFICERS: still a case for arming pilots?

FEDERAL FLIGHT DECK OFFICERS: still a case for arming pilots?

Despite the increased assistance from advanced technologies, one element of aviation security remains irreplaceable: the human. Shortly after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States of America deployed Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDOs) to assist in making its nation’s skies safer for its airlines, crews and the traveling public. Today, politicians and US aviation security experts remain steadfast in supporting the case for arming commercial airline pilots and Captain Paris Michaels, himself a retired FFDO, justifies the decision.

The attacks of 9/11 instantly altered parochial perspectives of the concept of asymmetric warfare. In a matter of hours, commercial airliners were transformed into sanguine weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Remedies, often as unorthodox as the deeds of the perpetrator, became the core of the counterterrorist response. With little resistance, the plan to use Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDOs) – armed volunteer commercial pilots – was implemented by the United States government as one element to counter that threat.

Two determining questions focus on whether the FFDO programme should remain a required element of the U.S. commercial aviation security system. First, has the original asymmetric threat been totally eliminated? And, second, has the industry created such a fail-safe security system that on-board defensive measures are no longer required? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is a resounding – no. Despite years of effort, threats to aviation safety still exist.

“…ostrich-like public behaviour is a reflexive symptom of chronic-paranoia which existed for years following 9/11…”

Complacency has materialised due to the lull in successful attacks, but terrorist groups continue to plan, plot and find ways to finance the next attack. Unfortunately, the grim fact is that every day in which nothing happens brings us closer to the day when it will.

A false sense of aviation security is a product of suppressing terrorist news universally. This is done for a number of reasons by a growing number of advocates as well as opponents of the FFDO programme. The public has only been made aware of spectacular events concerning both extreme successes and failures of international aviation security. With the intent of fostering calm, strategic censoring actually contributes to complacency and desensitisation.

To further illustrate; in the days following the recent B-737-MAX 8 series of accidents, possibilities of cyber terrorism as a culprit were surprisingly absent from headlines. Society shies away from identifying complex ideologies and fallible technology as a cause of accidents, especially when it has the potential of appealing to public fear leading to negative economic impact. This ostrich-like public behaviour is a reflexive symptom of chronic-paranoia which existed for years following 9/11.

To the surprise of many, al-Qaeda has not been totally destroyed and has indeed spawned a number of smaller splinter-groups. The group has been strategic and patient over the years, allowing ISIS to absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts while diligently reconstituting itself. Non-state actors have become proxies, vying to conduct operations in order to earn approval and to seek acclaim from informal terrorist leaders. Autonomous groups solicit aid and broadcast volunteer directives dispersed in cryptic code over layers of the internet to foment evil. Terrorist groups train all over the world with little-to-no effort of coercion to disband. Intelligence officials seldom publicly celebrate extermination of rising leaders of terrorist organisations, yet monetary rewards for information leading to their capture or neutralisation, however, are advertised in appropriate forums. Training documents discovered in terrorist safe-houses continue to identify the commercial airliner as the ideal target.

Sceptics of the FFDO programme often cite an inaccurate pacifist claim that ISIS doesn’t blow-up airliners. Counter-conflict advocates who shun tactics of enhanced preparedness claim that the so-called caliphate has already been eliminated, forwarding the delusion that a terrorist threat no longer exists in the aviation industry. Such claims suggest that ISIS will never attack an aviation target, as though it is beyond their skillset to do so. The fact is that the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s sub-contractors aren’t just rag-tag remnants of larger groups; they vigorously solicit assignments and missions distributed among willing homegrown (international and domestic U.S.) underground cells and non-state actors who have their own sources of financing and guidance. Smaller groups may only conduct surveillance operations, yet they collect and supply the integral homework required of an attack without necessarily knowing the specific target, time or the place.

“…in 2017, 3,957 firearms were confiscated at 239 U.S. airports; 84% were loaded, of which, 34% actually had a round in the chamber. Meanwhile, in audit-testing, TSA continues to perform poorly, missing 70% of the fake weapons…”

Are target governments and protective agencies actually able to predict, determine or identify all existing threats? Hardly. It is a very complex landscape bearing dynamic leadership and dubious sources of financial, technical and operational support. The element of surprise is what makes terrorism asymmetric and an unknown strategy is a difficult element to defeat. The ‘good guys’ simply can’t penetrate and monitor all groups, all the time. Today’s electronic hackers hold as much criminal significance as yesterday’s talented bomb-makers. In the mind of the terrorist, 9/11 stands as the ultimate terrorist act – it is the one hit worth re-enacting. Such a deed would demonstrate and project their image as profoundly capable of generating just as much damage, but probably even more fear than the original act.

Integrated with lethal weaponised versions of electronic, biological, chemical and nuclear forms of terrorism, the airliner remains favourite among all delivery modes as it carries a huge optic value of death and destruction; consider the impact of hitting just one airliner. The missing Malaysian plane still incites consternation and fear years after its disappearance. The effect is impressive even though no one has claimed responsibility, providing conspiracy theorists with ample material to create hypothetical scenarios which even terrorists find salient. The fact remains: airliners simply do not just disappear.

As the ISIS threat evolves, its ability to inspire attacks continues because its radical ideology persists. ISIS fighters are dangerous, battle-hardened terrorists. Many are abandoning comfortable lives (albeit from war-torn areas) to fight for an ideal they believe in and are successful at recruiting affiliates throughout the world to accomplish their goals.

In the mind of the FFDO sceptic, the fact that no hijackings have been prevented, or attempted, either with or without FFDO intervention bears little reflection on the effectiveness of the programme. This opposing thought usually emanates from anti-gun advocates who exploit the FFDO programme as a way to weaponise civilian aviation. It should be noted that the FFDO is trained and authorised to eliminate threats through a number of methods, of which, using their weapon is only one.

It is interesting to note (from Transportation Security Administration data) that, in 2017, 3,957 firearms were confiscated at 239 U.S. airports; 84% were loaded, of which, 34% actually had a round in the chamber. Meanwhile, in audit-testing, TSA continues to perform poorly, missing 70% of the fake weapons.

FFDO’s are tasked with protecting the cockpit, the asset (entire aircraft), and preventing it from becoming a WMD and tactical techniques in the programme merge functions of counterterrorist methodologies. The FFDO’s role, in-conjunction with law enforcement, military, specially trained inflight personnel, and command centres on the ground, provide a robust argument for sustaining the programme. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality, however, most conventional threats can be significantly diminished, if not extinguished, by a qualified FFDO.

In this vein, it is impossible to quantify the value of the FFDO function as a deterrent. It is also true that the FFDO may only be a limited challenge to a wide spectrum of new threats which may indeed overshadow those preventable by an armed crewmember.

Comprehensive security strategy is based on multi-dimensional surveillance and tactics. The FFDO is a very cost-effective security component of the force-multiplier whereas airport security systems are acknowledged as being effective but expensive. The dilemma is not a question of manned vs. unmanned systems, but rather one of achieving the proper mix of hybrid systems comprised of appropriate assets.

The global war on terror is in progress and the battlefield has already come to the cockpit and passenger cabin. Passengers are capable of rallying heroic resistance to terrorist actions when a necessary mixture of informal leaders can orchestrate such action, but the conditions necessary to arouse this capability are not assumed to be present on every flight. Relying on passenger assistance must not be taken as simply as asking a person if they feel qualified and are willing to undertake duties required of them while seated in the emergency exit row. The air-piracy scenario is one of dynamically combined tactical operations requiring swift and decisive response which only training and proficiency provide. FFDO’s are not intended to substitute effectiveness of the Federal Air Marshal (FAM) programme, under which the FFDO programme is directed. FFDO’s augment the FAM team’s mission and are inconspicuously present even when FAM’s are not. They also contribute input to the U.S. intelligence-agency apparatus as a powerful threat-evaluation tool.

The FFDO is the last line of defence to augment all aviation security resources. The goal to make on-board defensive measures unnecessary is a good one but operational, ethical and financial constraints prevent this objective from materialising in the foreseeable future. Likewise, defences of the airport fortress are good but not perfect. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2396 of 2017 requires the use of screening tools like watch lists, airline reservation data and biometrics. Aviation security experts largely subscribe to the concept defining that should a threat make it to the airport perimeter, the system is already compromised. Progress is being made to close security-gaps, but a secure system does not yet exist.

The fact remains that bomb threats are a daily occurrence in the global commercial airline industry. Airlines routinely transport refugee passengers who may be superficially screened yet may not possess a criminal record or even have a valid name; these passengers dodge electronic scrutiny, employing official forms of identification and are likely to fit into established precautionary profiles because of cultural forays and customs.

Many people question the validity of maintaining the programme’s status. Yet even as technological innovation and global information flows accelerate, non-state actors will continue to gain influence and capabilities that, during the previous century, remained largely the purview of governments.

The FFDO is not the proverbial silver bullet. The FFDO fulfils a specific mission at a bargain price for a quality product of security performance operating within its jurisdiction. The volunteer FFDO has a personal incentive to participate and support the programme. They must pass rigorous tests, possess the right levels of temerity and character, and must prove capable of assuming stringent operating parameters of the entire security job in addition to fulfilling their primary task of flying the aircraft. It can be considered an elite programme, not suited for everyone.

“…the air-piracy scenario is one of dynamically combined tactical operations requiring swift and decisive response which only training and proficiency provide…”

Is there still a case for arming pilots? Some military spokesmen, politicians, anti-gun activists and foreign officials make the stand that war zones are too dangerous for civilians and that pilots are not trained in protocols of cultural awareness to operate effectively. Some say an armed civilian pilot conveys merely a normal and unofficial level of resistance reserved only for military or law enforcement personnel. Possessing abilities to decide when and how to balance the measured use of force with lethal action to suppress an act of air piracy takes extensive training and thorough performance evaluation. Instructors of FFDO volunteers simultaneously train Border Patrol, law enforcement and international soldiers. They consistently report that graduates of the training programme are physically and psychologically prepared to do the job. Lawmakers believe them for a number of reasons. In accordance with majority consensus of tax-paying citizens and voting passengers, funding appropriations for support of the FFDO concept indicate that the successful cost-effective programme is likely to continue for some time to come.


Author’s Note: In writing this article and discussing counterterrorism capabilities, specific security sensitive information, potentially offering aid or comfort to the enemy, has been avoided.


Captain Paris Michaels (retired)

Captain Paris Michaels (retired) is a doctoral candidate of the National Security Studies Program, concentrating on Eastern Mediterranean Conflict, at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. He holds a master’s degree in National Security & Statecraft and a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Studies from the same institution. He has earned an MBA and a Master of Science in Government Contract Procurement from Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida. He can be contacted at: rbtincpm@aol.com.