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New Technology Can Dramatically Enhance Security and Thwart Terrorist Attacks

By Lori J. Brown
February 5, 2010

Lori J. Brown (Faculty Specialist, Western Michigan University College of Aviation) returns with an article that not only analyzes what needs to be done to heighten airline security and thwart terrorist attacks, but also introduces new technology that has the potential to dramatically improve cabin crew communication and enhance in-flight security.

Failed Terrorist Attack against Northwest Flight 253 provides valuable Wake-up Call to Commercial Aviation

"A profoundly important gift was given to commercial aviation on Christmas Day 2009" when we were reminded, yet again, that "highly determined radicals and extremists continue to plot new and different ways to inflict great economic harm on an airline industry which has yet to fully recover from the staggering costs inflicted on September 11, 2001" (ALPA, 2010).

Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab and His Un-Detonated Plastic Explosives

In addition to the attempted bombing of flight 253, on Christmas day 2009, Hussain Abdulla, Ahmed Ali, and Assad Sarwar were recently found guilty of attempting a massive airline bomb plot, which further confirms commercial airlines are "soft targets" for these types of terrorist attacks. The three British men were convicted of plotting to blow up flights from London to North America using bombs disguised as soft drinks. Security correspondent Frank Gardner said, "They believed the airline bomb plot was part of al-Qaeda's "obsession" with using commercial airliners." This highlights the fact that the United States does not have a monopoly on threats to homeland security—or on the solutions needed to address these threats, and a reminder that incendiary devices are still making their way onboard commercial aircraft.

The failed attempt to bomb Northwest Airlines flight 253 revealed significant aviation security deficiencies, which deserve serious consideration. While we evaluate the effectiveness of the current security screening system, it may be valuable to revisit some of the concerns which were raised after the 9/11 attacks.

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the U.S. Congress and various local, State and Federal agencies and experts from the aviation security industry collaborated in unparalleled efforts to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents. On 18 January 2002, a Detailed Guidance document, commonly known as Common Strategy #2, was issued to airline operators by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Shortly thereafter, on 15 March 2002, ICAO adopted new requirements to fortify the "flight deck" door, as well as discreet notification for security breaches initiated in the cabin (ICAO, 2005).

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Open Cockpit Doors - A Thing of the Past
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt

These documents describe improvements to systems that were ineffective on 9/11. However, with the flight deck door now reinforced, (now called a fortress door) locked, and the flight crew no longer readily accessible to the flight attendants, calls for methods to provide for immediate notification to the pilot during a suspected threat in the cabin. The flight attendants are the eyes and ears for the pilots in the cabin, and possess valuable time critical information. The Common Strategy #2 document also stressed the importance of each additional minute of early communication during a security threat, both from the cabin to the flight deck and from the flight deck to the ground, in improving the effectiveness and response by persons on the ground. According to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, The pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 were not immediately alerted that a passenger had tried to ignite a bomb on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The pilots said they had a problem when the flight landed in Detroit. "There was a communication gap between the cabin and the flight deck crew," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told a House subcommittee, on February 4, 2010. "The flight deck crew reported they had someone who had attempted to set firecrackers off, so it didn't elevate to anyone — whether it was the cockpit or air traffic control — to anything of great seriousness at that point." "These minutes and seconds could potentially be used to coordinate with ground operations to warn other aircraft in the air, and land the aircraft" (Seidenstat, 2009). Eight years since the security breaches of 9/11, the thwarted bomb plot in London, and the unsuccessful bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, on Christmas Day 2009, we still have not fully addressed this in-flight concern. Secure hands free wireless technologies may have the ability to help close these communications gaps. The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) supports the development of discreet, secure, hands-free, wireless communications systems as one means to prevent a potentially catastrophic security breach by terrorists—or at least a tool to warn the flight deck at the earliest possible moment


As stated in the ICAO-36th session assembly, "Crew communications and coordination are considered critical as they relate to the survival of all crewmembers and passengers and the overall control of the aircraft. Tactical communications experts from the military and law enforcement have stressed that communication is the primary point of failure during live situational scenarios. A device that is discreet, meaning as small and innocuous as possible, will allow all crew members to carry on their person the ability to communicate from anywhere in the aircraft at any time under any circumstance. Each personal device must have capability for encrypted, bidirectional communications to allow plain language communications during crises, which will help ensure security and reduce confusion. Security of the system is further ensured through use of dedicated hardware components that are accessible only to authorized personnel such as crewmembers and, potentially, any active law enforcement officers who may have presented credentials to the crew prior to the flight" (ICAO, 2007).

The hands-free concept will allow crewmembers under both general emergency (e.g., medical crises, emergency evacuations) and security threat conditions to use their hands to protect themselves, the cockpit, other crewmembers, passengers, and the aircraft while continuing to coordinate and communicate with the cockpit, the ground, and the rest of the crew. Obviously, a device possessing such characteristics would of necessity have to be wireless. Additionally, these devices could allow all communications generated under emergency conditions to be:
·Recorded onto the flight recorder for future investigations (while recognizing that such communications, like cockpit voice recordings, should be protected from disclosure);
·Monitored by onboard law enforcement officers (if available); and
·Monitored by authorized outside responders for real-time transmission to relevant Security Operations Center; National Hostage Rescue Team; local crisis response teams; Local Airport Emergency Responders; and Military responders.

Wired network systems for use by passengers on airplanes in flight has already been implemented by some air carriers. For purely economic reasons, a wireless communications system for use by airline crewmembers might utilize these proposed passenger-based systems. However, given the potential for security compromises inherent in shared communications hardware, the ITF recommends that wireless systems for crewmembers be dedicated and separate from any passenger-accessible systems.

Of particular concern are systems that are intended to provide wireless or wired access to passenger-owned devices for Internet and cellular telephone network access or onboard in-flight entertainment systems. The potential for terrorists to use such systems to communicate and coordinate tactics, both within the airplane and to team members on the ground and even on other airplanes, is a grave concern and one that has been discussed by the United States Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in comments to the Federal Communications Commission related to the issue of in-flight use of cellular telephones (United States Department of Justice, 2006).

As documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, the hijackers/terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks utilized existing telecommunications options from within the terminals at Boston's Logan Airport to communicate and coordinate the planned attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report indicates that while checking in for American Airlines Flight 11, hijacker Mohammed Atta reportedly received a call on his cell phone from fellow hijacker Marwan al Shehhi, which was placed by Shehhi from a payphone located in Terminal C of Logan Airport between the screening checkpoint and the boarding gate for United Airlines Flight 175. Although the communications were effectuated on the ground using existing communications facilities, it is not difficult to conclude what additional/further coordination could have occurred if other options – such as in-flight cell phone use – had been available.

Hands-free wireless communications systems are not presently installed in commercial aircraft, other notification methods are presently in use. For example, crewmembers perform visual confirmation through a viewing device, such as a peephole, installed in the flight deck door, with audio confirmation. ITF does not agree that this solution meets the intent of the ICAO standard or the requirements of Common Strategy #2, as these types of viewing devices are easily defeated (ICAO, 2007).

It may also be argued that the evacuation alarm can be a substitute for a discreet, secure, hands-free, wireless device. First, it is possible during a multi-terrorist coordinated team hijack attempt that none of the flight attendants will be able to reach the location of the evacuation alarm. Second, under the stress of an emergency, crewmembers will instinctively revert to their trained responses: This procedure is counter-intuitive to the safety and evacuation training of crewmembers. The use of the evacuation alarm as a security notification device will add to confusion and most likely trigger reactions inappropriate during a security threat. During Operation Atlas, (a multi-jurisdictional simulated hijacking exercise conducted in the United States on 4 June 2005), it was discussed as an option but under the stress of the exercise, nobody thought to use the evacuation alarms for security purposes (ICAO, 2007).

It is the experience in the United States that even with hardened cockpit doors, the Federal Flight Deck Officers program, and the Federal Air Marshal Service, all crew members must be prepared to immediately respond during a crisis. In these situations, a lag in response time due to poor communications and coordination can prove fatal. As was observed on 9/11, despite the heroic efforts of all those involved with United Airlines Flight 93, communications lag time led to the tragic deaths of every person on board the aircraft. According to ALPA (2010), "Many airlines did not notify their airborne flight crews, or flight crews preparing to take off, of the failed attack on NWA Flight 253 until long after it occurred. Those crews should have been issued a caution from their respective companies that instructed them to institute specific countermeasures contained in the Common Strategy. The procedures for using air-to-ground and ATC notifications to flight crews of such serious security events must be improved. ALPA is promoting a concept called Threatened Airspace Management (TAM), which is intended to address this subject" (ALPA, 2010).

As history has shown, crisis situations typically strike without advance warning and there is often little or no lead or "ramp up" time. For this reason, a carrier's system must be in "pre-ready" condition so that carriers are in a position to react in an immediate and effective manner in such situations (ICAO, 2007). Additionally, experts note that in grave situations, having the ability to immediately provision an intercept is most critical in the air-to-ground context, where every moment matters.

Finally, in Chapter 5 ("Crew Communication, Coordination and Response") of the first edition of ICAO’s Manual on the Implementation of the Security Provisions of Annex 6 released in 2002, states:

"There is a strong, natural tendency of the cabin crew to feel isolated, unimportant, and forgotten in back, to feel as dispensable victims of the terrorists. Understandably, those feelings can have a most detrimental effect on crew coordination and on-board communication. This has to be taken into account both during training and during the pre-flight briefing." This statement is further supported by a recent global survey reported in the F.A.A., International Journal of Applied Aviation Studies, (Brown, et al., 2010).

Reports and a recent global survey (Brown, et al., 2010) reported that out of 271 pilots and flight attendants, 13% indicated a discrete wireless communication device would not enhance safety, 18% indicate a slight effect, 33% indicated a device may somewhat enhance safety, and 21% indicated the device would greatly enhance safety. The study also reports that 58% did not find the interphone system to be discrete. After a review of the above-mentioned research and recent security breaches, Western Michigan University (WMU), STG Aerospace Ltd., and ASH Communications, Ltd., of the United Kingdom have collaborated to enhance global aviation security through improvements to crew communications with the introduction of wireless communication devices to commercial aircraft. While this research primarily looks at commercial transport aircraft for this particular research project, there are a significant number of applications for this technology, including maritime (especially the large passenger ferries), trains, prisons, and hospitals.


STG Aerospace (U.K.) has developed a wireless, discrete cabin alert system to enable the crewmembers to alert the flight deck of a security breach. The system provides the flight crew with an audible alert, coupled with a visible cockpit annunciation signal. The signal will indicate the alert while giving a "zonal" location. The system also includes a door intercom to provide the additional audio communication between the cabin and the flight deck sides of the cockpit door.

The purpose of this system is to provide the following functionality:
1. When a person authorized to access the cockpit seeks entry, the existing visual identification through the cockpit door, coupled with a new audio intercom confirmation that the door area is clear.
2. In the event of an attack on a cabin crewmember, or other security breach in the cabin, a system provided to enable the cabin crew to alert the flight crew of the emergency event, achieved by using discrete wireless "Panic Buttons" provided to the crewmembers.
This technology will allow effective communication, while keeping the cost and weight to a minimum to meet the economic constraints of U.S. Airlines, as well as other potential users such as hospitals, schools, prisons, trains, and large shipping vessels.

Crew Alert Monitoring Device (CAMS)
The Crew Alert Monitoring device (CAMS), a wireless device that is an ultra secure cabin alert and monitoring system, using small donut shaped alarm units held on person of each cabin crew, or FAMS, which, when activated, sends an alarm signal to the cockpit, effectively warning them of trouble, and the expectation of escalation of that trouble to the cockpit. The signal also tells the cockpit where in the aircraft the alarm was triggered, and therefore an indication of the time, which may be available to them to undertake appropriate actions before attempts at intrusions to the cockpit. The system also provides a means of voice communication between cabin crew and pilot at the cockpit door, and combined with the use of the door peephole provides the pilots with a good means of monitoring if anyone wishing entry to the cockpit is under stress and possible coercion. The system is aircraft specific, extremely secure, has 'designed in' safeguards against inadvertent activation, and meets all the needs of those most closely affected - the pilots, cabin crew and passengers. Cost of wireless devices was cited as a reason for not mandating wireless devices, but CAMS costs just $5,000 for a B737 up to $9,000 for a B747, with minimal installation cost, providing, in combination with the existing door peephole, a discreet monitoring system for the whole aircraft.


The system consists of four parts:
• Panic Button
• System Module
• Relay Module
• Intercom

The Four CAMS Components

1. A CAMS panic button is to be carried by crewmembers to provide discreet alert.

2. A CAMS System Module (CSM) placed in the cockpit by the entry door, providing audio communications to the intercom along with audible and visual alerts when a panic button has been activated.

3. CAMS Relay Modules (CRM) to act as wireless transceivers for propagation of the alert signal through the aircraft. The designs of these will mimic that of the CAMS System Module, but will be installed out of sight in the cabin ceiling area.

4. A CAMS Intercom unit for outside the cockpit door area, to provide audio confirmation. This is coupled with the existing visual confirmation provide by video or through the door viewing device. The CAMS system will have a specific aircraft ID to stop interference between adjacent aircraft systems on the ground. There will be 2048 possible IDs available, allocated at installation. This means that the probability of two aircraft having the same ID is over four million to one and the probability of one having an incident or test while the other aircraft is close enough is a multiple of that figure.


The CAMS Panic Button is a self-contained battery powered wireless transmitter The unit is symmetric so that in a panic situation the person does not need to “think” about the operation or orientation of the unit, but simply squeeze the centre of the unit to activate it. Attachment can be via a lanyard, shirt clip, key ring or simply held in the pocket of the crewmember. This approach means that the location of the unit could be different on each crewmember, reducing the potential for the attacker to stop the crewmember from pressing the panic button, if they were aware the person was carrying one. When the alert is activated, a vibrator in the unit will activate to show that the unit has transmitted the signal, then when it has been acknowledged by the flight crew.

CAMS can be worn on a lanyard around the neck, in a pocket, or on the wrist, even imbedded in garments of flight attendants, law enforcement, or air marshals. The communication and alerts are recorded onto the cockpit flight recorder for future investigations (while recognizing that such communications, like cockpit voice recordings, should be protected from disclosure). The information of a security breach from a flight attendant or onboard law enforcement officers can be relayed from the flight deck to: the relevant Security Operations Center; Air Traffic Control National Hostage; Rescue Team and local crisis response teams; Local Airport Emergency Responders; and Military responders.


L-3 Communications offers an FAA-approved Cabin Surveillance System (CSS), with an alert feature from the cabin to the flight deck. The system consists of two display monitors, two cameras, and keychain remote transmitters carried by each member of the cabin crew.

I-Tex Wireless has developed the emergency alert manager (T.E.A.M.) wireless system, a patented discreet cabin to cockpit alerting system. It consists of common-looking headsets engineered to permit routine communication between flight attendants, with a unique feature set including speech recognition that permits emergency notifications to be transmitted to the cockpit and back to each flight attendant. Once activated into the emergency secondary mode it will transmit text messages direct to the cockpit for pilot action.

Honeywell has developed a Federal Air Marshal Communications System (FAMSCOM). Integrated technologies allow officers to roam anywhere in the aircraft cabin, communicating securely and covertly with FAMS ground operations, cockpit crew members, other onboard air marshals, and flight attendants, as well as digital aircraft systems. With FAMSCOM, an officer can coordinate a response and its timing with other officers or cabin crewmembers, greatly increasing the probability of success, further described in “Protecting Airline Passengers in the Age of Terrorism, (Seidenstat, et al., 2009).


The Department of Homeland Security admits that aviation remains a target, and that terrorists may seek to involve an increased number of operatives to overcome increased flight security or the resistance of passengers or crewmembers. There is a short window of opportunity in which action can be taken to thwart a suicidal terrorist hijacking or remedy other crises onboard an aircraft, and law enforcement needs to maximize its ability to respond to these potentially lethal situations. Indeed, with respect to three of the flights that were hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, the amount of time that elapsed between the determinations that each aircraft had been hijacked and when each plane crashed ranged from 12 to 27 minutes (Department of Justice, 2005). Also, The 9/11 commission report recommended in the Communication Section & Subject: Sec. 4021: Wireless communication Provisions (paraphrased for brevity):

In concert with the FAA, TSA was asked to study the suitability for wireless technology to enable cabin crew to discreetly notify the pilots in case of a security breach or safety issue in the cabin. In such a real-life emergency, having communications tools more sophisticated than the easily incapacitated cabin interphone might prove crucial to flight crewmembers’ successful reaction. There are several different vendors in the United States that have prepared cost-effective devices that could easily be integrated into the aircraft operating systems and could rapidly be installed on all U.S. commercial aircraft. Clearly, the events of 9/11 demonstrated that a more reliable form of communication than cabin interphones is needed. While the value of communicating with crew or ground personnel may be obvious, the ability to access onboard aircraft systems is also a significant advantage. For example, knowing the distance and time to the nearest airport or the time-based fuel remaining could be invaluable to an air marshal in planning a response to an onboard attack.

While it is not suggested that this type of technology can prevent these tragic attacks on commercial aircraft, it is clear that wireless communication alerting devices could add another layer of security onboard the aircraft, possible giving the pilots crucial minutes that could be used to contact authorities on the ground, land the plane, or divert from a densely populated area.

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See The 9/11 Commission Report (released July 22, 2004) at 5-10 [the FAA’s Boston Air Traffic Control Center learned of the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 just before 8:25 a.m. and the flight crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. (21 minutes); awareness that United Flight 175 had been hijacked occurred at approximately 8:51 a.m. and the flight crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. (12 minutes); suspicion that American Airline Flight 77 had been hijacked occurred at 9:00 a.m., the hijacking of Flight 77 was definitely known just before 9:10 a.m., and the flight crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (27 minutes)].


9/11 Commission. (2004). “9/11 Commission Report, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks”. Washington, D.C.

9/11 Commission Staff Monograph. (2004). “9/11 and terrorist Travel. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States”.

ALPA, (2010). “Meeting Today’s Aviation Security Needs: A Call to Action for a Trust-Based Security System”. January 19, 2010.

Brown, L., Rantz, B., & Niehaus, J., (2010) “The Efficacy of Flight Attendant/Pilot Communication, in a Post 9/11 Environment: Viewed from Both Sides of the Fortress Door”. FAA ,IJAAS, Summer, 2010 (in press).

Department of Justice, (2005). “Comments of the Department of Justice, Including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security”. In the Matter of Amendment of the Commission’s Rules to Facilitate the Use of Cellular Telephones and Other Wireless Devices Aboard Aircraft, FCC WT Docket No. 04-435, Dated May 26, 2005.

Fleisher, L. (2005). “Terror response is tested at Boston's Logan Airport in OPERATION ATLAS “. Boston Globe, June 5th, 2005,

ICAO, (2007). 36th Session of the Assembly | Working Papers (12/09/07), “Discreet wireless communication for civil aviation cabin crew members”.

ICAO, Annex 6, Part 1, 13.2.1, ICAO Compliance Project – Session ONE Issues Assessment Group Operation of Aircraft.

Seidenstat, P., Splane, F. (2009). “Protecting Airline Passengers in the Age of Terrorism” Chapter VII, published by Greenwood Publishing, August 2009.

STG Aerospace, (2008). Commercial in Confidence, CAMS System Description, System Description Document No. D7-01054.

Department of Justice, (2005). “Comments of the Department of Justice, Including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security”. In the Matter of Amendment of the Commission’s Rules to Facilitate the Use of Cellular Telephones and Other Wireless Devices Aboard Aircraft, FCC WT Docket No. 04-435.

Written by
Lori J. Brown

Lori Brown is a Faculty Specialist, and Researcher at Western Michigan University, College of Aviation. With over 25 years of experience as a pilot, and flight attendant, she is uniquely qualified to investigate issues “from both sides of the flight deck door”. She is continuing her studies online at the Naval Post Graduate School & the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The research team uses an MD-80 cabin Trainer (donated by Spirit Airlines) for their research laboratory. See WMU's Crew Safety and Security Team webpage or www.stgaerospace.com for more information.

4 User Comments:
Username: Fox9 [User Info]
Posted 2010-03-25 12:46:00 and read 32768 times.

We all carry wireless devices already - they are called CELL PHONES.

Username: Avtraveler [User Info]
Posted 2010-04-21 04:36:31 and read 32768 times.

- In light of the Christmas Day terrorist attack that was thwarted by the efforts of flight attendants at Northwest Airlines, A Flight attendant Union, AFA-CWA is calling for a four-pronged approach that would help to tighten aviation security. Reissuing the call for carry-on guidelines, as well as enhancing communication techniques and hands-on counter-terrorism training, AFA-CWA is working with members of Congress to ensure that our layered security approach takes a proactive role.

H.R.2200 Bill Passed in House
Title: Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act -This bill has been passed in the House. The bill now goes on to be voted on in the Senate.
Sec. 234 Calls for a Report on cabin crew communication.
This section directs TSA to report on technologies and issue standards for wireless communication devices for secure cabin crew communication among the cabin, flight deck, and any embarked Federal Air Marshals.(Sec. 234) Directs the Assistant Secretary to: (1) prepare a report that assesses technologies and includes standards for the use of wireless devices to enhance aircraft security and communication between cabin crew and pilot crewmembers, embarked federal air marshals, and authorized law enforcement officials

Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Assistant Secretary, in consultation with the Advisory Committee established under section 44946 of title 49, United States Code, shall prepare a report that assesses technologies and includes standards for the use of wireless devices to enhance transportation security on aircraft for the purpose of ensuring communication between and among cabin crew and pilot crew-members, embarked Federal air marshals, and authorized law enforcement officials, as appropriate.

The TSA Authorization calls for a study of wireless communication devices that can be used by flight attendants to discreetly communicate among flight crew without dashing to the galley to use the phone. The study will evaluate current technology available and assess which would benefit flight attendants the most.
See these links for more information


Username: Huilamiguel [User Info]
Posted 2012-12-25 18:37:09 and read 21856 times.

saludos desde Pereira, Colombia

Username: Huilamiguel [User Info]
Posted 2012-12-25 18:39:07 and read 21853 times.

saludos desde la ciudad de Pereira, Colombia.

Me interesan todos los articulos en esta pagina.
follow twitter @MiguelAntonop

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