- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

After each hijacking, we have upped the security ante — as we will now. But once again we must assume it will be to no avail.

Ingenious terrorists have always found a way around our conventional screening of passengers. Last Tuesday, armed only with primitive knives and box-cutters, they commandeered four jets, turning three of them into ferocious bombs that hit the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center.

We should, of course, do the obvious: place air marshals on each flight; eliminate curbside check-ins; install high tech-machines that spot ceramics and plastic bombs; and establish a new federal police force, supervised by the FBI, to handle passenger screening rather than $6-an-hour employees hired by low-bid airline contractors.

But even if we put all these into play, we should expect we will once again fail.

The next time, what target in what city will be reduced to rubble by thousands of pounds of burning jet fuel?

It may sound hopeless but there is one near-perfect solution.

News of it comes to me not from Washington bureaucracy or terrorists specialists by from my daughter-in-law, a veteran stewardess of a major airline.

The answer is surprisingly simple. The pilot cabin of every large plane must be separated from the passenger section by an air-tight steel bulwark, turning the pilot area into an impenetrable vault.

Inside, the pilot and co-pilot will have their own toilet and food areas, arms, gas masks and an emergency oxygen supply. The only ingress and egress from this compartment, once it is locked, will be from the inside. A series of hidden miniature television cameras and microphones will keep the pilots informed of what is happening in the passenger section.

Pilots will enter the cabin vault before the first passenger arrives, then close it tight. It will not be opened until the plane lands, all passengers leave and the plane is secured by police.

What will happen in the case of a seemingly successful hijacking? The pilots — in every case — will refuse to open the compartment. They will not turn the plane over to the hijackers. Instead, they will drop the plane to below 10,000 feet altitude to avoid the dangers of decompression. They will radio ahead and land at the nearest airport, where police will await the hijackers.

But what if the hijackers threaten to kill all the passengers?

Sadly, the pilots will still refuse to turn the plane over. Hijackers will soon learn that killing the passengers will not help them commandeer the plane, which is their goal.

The answer to making the skies safe is to eliminate the motive. if you can't commandeer a plane, then why start the process? In addition, with the plane under the firm command of the pilot, passengers can attempt a revolt against hijackers without fear of crashing the plane, as happened in the abortive attempt near Pittsburgh.

Who will pay for the remodeling of all commercial jets, which will require removing a front row or two of paying seats? If we leave it to the airlines, it will never happen. Naturally the federal government, which has already appropriated $40 billion for the fight against terrorism, must pay.

Every day that we fail to make commandeering a plane by hijackers a near-impossibility by permanently separating the pilot cabin from the passenger, we are risking the danger of another World Trade Center tragedy, or worse.

Washington, get to it. Carpe Diem.

Martin Gross is the author of several New York Times best-selling books on the federal government. His latest work is "The Government Racket — 2000 and beyond," published by Harper Collins.

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