From the back of the plane a man in a black mask pushed the flight attendant forward, a knife at her throat. "This is my plane," he growled. "Nobody move." The attendant looked terrified. "He's going to kill me. He's going to kill me."
Then, as the woman's screams filled the cabin, a casually dressed man in seat 5A got to his feet, drew a gun and fired two shots. The masked man crumpled to the floor.
This scenario was played out this week at the Federal Aviation Administration's training centre in Pomona, New Jersey, where, in the aftermath of the terror attacks, there has been a desperate push to train more sky marshals – armed agents such as the man in seat 5A.
These sky marshals are the centre of new airline safety plans announced yesterday by President George Bush in an effort to restore public confidence in flying and prevent hijackings such as those carried out on 11 September. The President is also desperate to help the airline industry, which has suffered massive job cuts and reduced passenger numbers in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington. Delta Air Lines said yesterday its planes were now operating at only 35 per cent of capacity.
In a cheerleading speech at Chicago's O'Hare international airport, Mr Bush said: "[Our] mutual goal is to get the airlines flying across America again. With all these measures we are returning America's airlines back to the American people.
"Get on the airlines, get about the business of America. Everybody here who showed up for work at this important industry is making a clear statement that terrorism will not stand. We will not surrender our freedom to travel. We will not surrender our freedoms in America. You may think you have struck our soul – you haven't touched it.''
Mr Bush's wide-ranging plan includes giving most – if not every – civilian airline flight a plain-clothes sky marshal trained to take on hijackers and armed with a weapon that could take out such assailants without breaching the fuselage of the cockpit or ricocheting and hitting innocent passengers.
While the Federal Aviation Administration is stepping up its programme to train sufficient marshals – positions for which it is currently recruiting – Mr Bush wants FBI officers and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service and other federal officers to take up the shortfall temporarily.
In addition to the sky marshals, Mr Bush said he was spending $500m on changes to improve safety measures on board planes – there has been no small measure of shock and concern that the hijackers were able so easily to gain access to the controls of the plane armed with just craft knives.
The modifications Mr Bush wants include restricting the opening of cockpit doors during flights, strengthening cockpit doors to deny access from the cabin, alerting the cockpit crew to activity in the cabin and ensuring continuous operation of the aircraft transponder in the event of an emergency. It is the transponder that allows controllers to track a plane.
There will also be a tightening of security at check-in at airports. There were demands for Mr Bush to entrust this service to the federal government and make security staff federal agents, but he stopped short of this, saying the government would take charge of training, procedures, screening, background checks and the purchase of security equipment such as X-ray machines. The federal government will also monitor security patrols.
Mr Bush and his advisers believe that full implementation of his proposals will take up to six months. In the meantime, he has asked that governors in every state call up the National Guard to beef up security at all commercial airports. The President said the government would pay for this.
There are other measures being considered. These include the installation of close-circuit television cameras inside the cabins of planes and technology that would allow air-traffic controllers to take charge of a crippled plane by remote control.
Mr Bush is, however, opposed to the request by the largest pilots' union to allow its members to arm themselves with guns. He said: "There may be better ways to do it, but I'm open to any suggestion.''
Reaction to Mr Bush's measures was mixed. While most agreed that they would go some way to improving security, others thought that the government should take total control of the check-in and security procedures and make check-in staff federal employees.
"I think it would better if you made it a federal job that you trained people to do – something like the FBI. You might have to put a tax on airline tickets, but I think people would he prepared for that," said David North, the editor-in-chief of Aviation Weekly and Space Technology magazine. "As all this kicks in you are going to see longer delays. We are going to have to get to the check-in three hours before take-off rather than two."
It was unclear last night whether Washington will try to ensure that other countries' airlines follow suit in the use of sky marshals. Downing Street said yesterday that it was looking at the issue.
While the introduction of marshals on American flights will put pressure on European carriers to fall into line, pilots from across Europe will discuss safety measures when the European Cockpit Association meets in Brussels on 7 October.
A spokesman for the British Airline Pilots Association said last night that armed marshals were not a popular idea. "Pilots in Europe have tended to think that having an unlocked door and no guns on board is the way forward. It is not necessary to lock doors or arm pilots," said a spokesman, who explained there was concern that hijackers could disarm a marshal and use his weapon. "A lot of American pilots don't like this at all. It is something that is very keenly debated."
* Two mid-level American air force generals have been authorised to order the shooting-down of commercial airlines without clearance from the president if the planes threaten cities, the US military announced yesterday.Reuse content