Gone, for now, is the chatter within flight crews about weather, flight paths and what to do once they reach their destination. Thanks to the events of Sept. 11, pilots across America are preparing their co-pilots and flight attendants for trouble.
In e-mails and pilot lounges, they are swapping ideas about how to fight back against hijackers: packing firearms, using coffeepots and cockpit crash axes as weapons, or rolling the plane so attackers are knocked off their feet.
At least one pilot even urged passengers to rise up and pummel attackers. It was just the most dramatic example of how, since terrorists converted jetliners into guided missiles, flight crews have abandoned the painfully obsolete idea that a hijacker merely wants ransom money or a trip to Cuba.
As their union leaders and Bush administration officials disagreed Tuesday on a range of proposals--from arming pilots to federalizing airport security--pilots and flight attendants continued the debate in America's cockpits and cabins:
How far should they go in enlisting passengers in the potential fight against would-be terrorists without scaring most of their customers away?
That debate has broadened to the flying public with the wide circulation of one account--a United Airlines pilot who tutored passengers over the PA system on how to foil any potential hijackers.
"Everybody stand up at once and start throwing things at this person and his confederates if he has any," Peter Hannaford, a former Reagan aide, recalled the pilot as saying. "Throw anything you can: shoes, pillows, books, magazines, even eyeglasses and especially blankets. Somebody try to rush him and get a blanket over this person and tackle them to the ground."
Hannaford said the passengers on board the flight from Denver to Dulles applauded. So did many other pilots who later heard the story.
"Until the FAA and our company come up with a new program of defense for the current times, I will use any means available to protect my passengers and crew," Capt. Dan Hill, a 25-year veteran for a major U.S. airline, wrote in an e-mail to a reporter.
"Halon to the face, [oxygen] bottles to the head ... hot coffee to the body.... If you don't kill them, they will kill us. Believe it!" he wrote. "When my briefing is done, my crew has an adrenaline rush! They are ready for trouble."
Extreme measures stir alarm
But other pilots--while seconding their colleague's sentiment--warned that sharing such talk with passengers could further sink an industry struggling to right itself.
"People aren't getting on an airplane to think about hijacking and doing battle in the sky," said Paul Emens, 52, a captain and 20-year veteran at Southwest Airlines. "They're going on airplanes to visit someone and do business. And if you use that kind of rhetoric, this industry is going to be in serious trouble, because people won't fly."
Noting that procedures for dealing with hijackers already have been changed, Emens added: "We don't need to get carried away with extreme ideas or knee-jerk reactions. It's only been 13 days. And you don't make good decisions in two weeks. This needs to be done right."
With that in mind, some flight crew members fear the idea of unleashing vigilantes in the cabin, such as the case last year of the out-of-control passenger who died from injuries suffered by the group of frightened passengers who subdued him on a Southwest Airlines flight.
"I'm concerned if we invite an airplane of people to get involved, they might react to a situation that may to them appear to be threatening when in fact it isn't," said Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. But the United pilot's speech was "understandable given what the industry is going through. People are reaching out for any security they can get."
Captains, who in emergencies have full discretion over what to do, are divided over the idea of arming themselves. Some questioned the effectiveness of the initial measures the FAA has taken and backed the Air Line Pilots Association's proposal Tuesday to allow properly trained pilots to carry firearms.
Provisions already taken, such as banning curbside check-in, would not have prevented the hijackings, said Barry Borella, 62, who has flown for 30 years as a commercial pilot.
"You can take toothpicks away from people and make people go on the plane naked, but what you need to do is give the cockpit some means of protecting itself."