By Mark Trevelyan, Security
LONDON (Reuters) - How can a single
unarmed passenger hijack an international airliner?
With surprising ease, a 27-year-old
Turkish man demonstrated on Tuesday by forcing his way into the cockpit
of a Boeing 737 and forcing it to divert to Italy.
The bizarre incident showed that the
introduction of locked, reinforced cockpit doors -- a much-publicized
innovation following the September 11 hijack attacks on America five
years ago -- is ineffective unless airline crew follow rigorous drills
when opening and closing them.
"One person with no weapons was able to
penetrate the entire security system of the airplane. What does it say
about our airline security?" said Omer Laviv, an Israeli specialist in
aviation security technology.
He said the episode sent a signal to
hijackers: "You don't need weapons to hijack an aircraft -- you don't
need anything ...This would make life for hijackers very easy".
Mursel Gokalp, pilot of the Turkish
Airlines plane, told reporters that hijacker Hakan Ekinci had bluffed
that he had three accomplices at the rear of the plane who would
detonate plastic explosives unless his demands were met.
"I obeyed because he gave me the
impression his friends were there because he was often looking to the
back of the plane," the captain said. He added that Ekinci was a burly
man who forced his way into the cockpit when a stewardess opened the
door to ask the flight crew if they needed anything.
Philip Baum, a consultant who trains
flight crews to deal with hijack scenarios, said airlines should have
drills in place to protect the cockpit when the door is briefly opened
-- something that is unavoidable, especially on longer flights, when the
pilots need food or to go to the toilet.
"What we teach is ... you pull one of
the galley trolleys across the aisle as an additional barrier before you
open the cockpit door, or at the very least you put another crew member
there, looking down the aisle," he said.
But analysts say some airlines, in
practice, become complacent and tend to neglect the drills.
"Those cockpit doors swing backwards and
forwards, (the cabin crew) will share a few words with the pilot and
then come back out and lock the door again. In that space of time,
anyone can get in there," said Chris Yates, aviation security expert at
Jane's information group.
Baum said a potential drawback of the
reinforced doors was that an attacker could close them behind him,
preventing cabin crew from coming to the pilots' rescue and overpowering
him. It was not clear if this was a factor in Tuesday's incident.
"It's all very well having these doors,
but if a hijacker gets into the cockpit and closes the door behind him,
he's actually sealed in there together with the captain and first
officer," Baum said.
In Tuesday's drama, the flight from
Tirana to Istanbul, carrying 107 passengers and six crew, landed safely
at Brindisi airport in southern Italy, where the hijacker apologized,
requested political asylum and was arrested. He turned out to have no
weapon or accomplices.
Aviation analysts interviewed by Reuters
said airlines have no absolute rules for responding to hijacks -- unlike
other emergencies such as engine failure -- because each situation
requires a judgment call from the pilot and crew. But the airline staff
have to err on the side of caution.
"You can't afford to take any chances
whatever with a multi-million-dollar aircraft stuffed full of people at
30-odd thousand feet," Yates said.
"Your prime duty is the safety of
everybody on board that aircraft. As such, you just have to get it on