Prior to 9/11, cabin crews were well-trained in airline safety as mandated by the FAA, and this training included a module on hijackings. Airline crews were trained to cooperate with hijackers on the assumption this would minimize loss of life. Suicide hijackings were not a prevalent form of terrorism.
After the attacks, cabin crews argued strongly for dramatically increased training in tactical defense and terrorism awareness. Airline managements opposed such training due to the direct costs of training and the indirect costs of paying crew salaries and taking valuable employees off line to accomplish it.
The Aviation Security Act passed soon after 9/11, mandated the Transportation Security Administration develop a program to train cabin crews in self-defense. But the Act did not require the training. Instead, it simply made it available to any crewmember who applied, at no charge.
It took more than three years for the TSA to develop the program. Late last year, the Crewmember Self Defense Training Program was offered to any eligible crewmember at no cost, at a selection of community colleges across the country.
The content of the TSA’s program is outstanding, as are the qualifications of its instructors, and crewmembers who have taken the course are better equipped to respond to a terrorist attack. But the fact that the training is not mandatory for all crews, as well as that no behavioral profiling is taught, dramatically weaken the potential increase in airline security.
If the training were mandatory, and taking place during existing cabin crew training, not only would all flight attendants have its benefit, but crew coordination could be taught, maximizing the response of the crew. This is the way all other emergencies are handled. Currently, because flight attendants must attend for no pay on days off, only a very small percent have had the training.
Behavioral profiling – learning to watch passengers for unconscious signals indicating a potential terrorist attack – would also be of great benefit in allowing the crew to prepare for, or prevent an act of violence. But, again, it is not part of the course.
It would be prudent for the Federal Aviation Administration to provide a waiver to the airlines for one round of existing annual flight attendant training in order to substitute Crewmember Defense Training for all air crews. But, thus far, the pleas of flight attendants unions have not been heeded.
The reliability of cabin crew training, in its present form, to stop or prevent a coordinated airborne terrorist attack is near zero, due to the few crewmembers who have had the training and the lack of coordinated mandatory crew training.