Airline self-defese: what would you do?

A Florida news station reports on the possibility of terrorist practice runs on DC/Orlando flights. The particulars are kind of weird when presented out of context:

Crew members say that shortly after takeoff, a group of four “Middle Eastern” men caused a commotion.

The witnesses claim one of the men ran from his seat in coach, toward the flight deck door. He made a hard left and entered the forward bathroom “for a considerable length of time.”

While he was in there, the other three men proceeded to move about the cabin, changing seats, opening overhead bins, and “generally making a scene.” They appeared to be trying to occupy and distract the flight attendants.

So, put yourself in the scenario. You’re sitting in your seat, finally got settled in, when suddenly your Sheepdog Awareness Sensor goes off, and you see a brown dude charging toward the cockpit door. Do you A) do nothing, because the dude probably has to hit the head super bad, B) casually trip him because you’re sitting in the aisle like a good Sheepbro, C ) Let him continue but prepare yourself for a fight if things go pear shaped, or D) Go back to your book because the dude clearly needs to use the can.

Now, it’s fairly easy to construct a hypothetical situation where no matter which of the four options you pick it turns out to be wrong, but I’m not interested in creating hypothetical traps. Rather, I’d like you to think about what you can actually do on airplanes. My job means I spend a decent amount of time on commercial aircraft every year, this year I’ll bump a solid 50,000 flight miles. I actually had an incident on a recent flight overseas where a chap of Middle Eastern origin got up, starting making a ruckus and opening overhead bins to the point that the flight attendants had to sort of bump corral him back to his seat. Do I think he was a terrorist? No, I’m pretty sure he was just a rude jerk with very poor manners.

All of this travel time has let me put together a list of a few things that I do to help enhance my personal safety when I’m traveling on commercial airlines. Here are a few tips on airline self-defense that I use.

1. Sit in aisle seats.
If something bad happens, you’re going to need to move. If you’re sitting behind 400 pounds of people in the middle and aisle seats, it’s going to be hard to accomplish anything.

2. Wear pants that stay on without a belt…and wear a belt.
Belts are handy weapons. A bit of leather wrapped around your hand will allow you to deliver a full-force punch to the head and greatly reduce the risk of shattering bones in your hand. This does assume you know how to deliver a proper punch. Even then, a heavy metal belt buckle makes for a reasonable impact weapon in a pinch.

3. Keep the area around your feet clear.
I don’t put a bag under the seat in front of me; primarily because at 5’6 I don’t take up a lot of space anyway so if I keep the under-seat area in front of me clear, I can damn near recline in Economy Plus. It’s quite relaxing. It also means that if I have to get up in a hurry, I’m not going to trip over my laptop bag shoulder strap and faceplant into the lady sitting across the aisle from me.

4. Relax
You’re in a metal tube at 35,000 feet in the air flying over mountains/ocean/farmland. If something truly bad happens, there isn’t going to be much you can do about it. Be ready for what you can do, know your limitations, and enjoy the latest copy of GunUp the Magazine on your iPad.

We spend a lot of time worrying about self-defense and the potential of bad stuff happening. I think it’s just as important to relax and enjoy life as well. I know my capabilities, physically and mentally. In the situation I described above, there were FAMs on the flight that intervened and dealt with the issue. For my part, I probably would have noticed the guys moving around, thought they were jerks, and probably done nothing since they weren’t actually doing anything illegal or dangerous. The real conclusion of this post is something I’ve talked about a lot: know where your lines are. Know what behaviors you’re willing to tolerate and what you won’t; create mental plans for whatever environments you spend a lot of time in.

Make your plans now, because when the moment comes, it will be too late to plan.


  1. Those skymall catalogs are pretty thick. Rolled tightly, they’re extremely sturdy and make a very nice short baton. Go extra fancy and secure it, rolled up as tight as you can, with a rubber band. We’re at a great time of year to test this improvised weapon out…When done with your pumpkin for Halloween, grab a catalog or magazine and try it out on pumpkin bashing. I know I was surprised at how well even thinner magazines can perform!

  2. I was taught by a flight attendant never to choose an aisle seat. Number one source of injuries on planes is people dropping their bags on aisle seat passengers heads.

    1. When we’re boarding and de-planing, I actually take special care to watch the people putting bags and stuff in the overheads. A little alertness and situational awareness has saved me from getting bonked more than a few times.

  3. When I get to my seat upon boarding (almost always an aisle seat), the hairbrush from my carryon goes in the seat pocket in front of me. One of the benefits of being a dude with long hair is that they don’t bat an eye at a plain old hairbrush, even though the particular one I carry sucks at brushing hair but makes an awesome if a bit large kubotan. My laptop bag also has a selection of writing instruments (pens and mechanical pencils) of extremely sturdy construction at least on of which is moved to a more accessible location once I’m through TSA.

    One of my favorite personal observations on airport security is from when I grabbed breakfast at the California Pizza Kitchen inside the TSA secure area of McCarren Airport on my way back from SHOT the other year. I asked the waitress if they had any plastic knives I could use to spread my jelly and was informed that they were not allowed to give out knives, even plastic ones. I had to use my STEEL fork instead because, apparently, they are less dangerous than a plastic knife. Idiots.

  4. Like many, I have considered the cumstances encountered on the 9/11 flights and ironically came to exactly the same conclusion on the belt. If you wrap all but the last 12 inches or so around your hand, it becomes a whip with a nasty metal tip. Whipping someone hard in the head with that is going to be extremely painful and disorienting for them. The second part of my thought process involved defending against the box cutters. Look in the plane’s safety brochure in the seat back pocket and you will notice that the seat bottoms on most planes can be used for flotation and have built in straps on the underside. The seat bottoms are attached with velcro. Remove one and slide your non dominant arm through the straps for a fairly passable improvised shield. This would have given a passenger a defense against a box cutter while the bad guy would have had no defense against your metal tipped whip.

  5. If the stewards(esses) intervene, that’s when it might be good to simply stand in your seat area, give the air crew the moral support of numbers and a visible sign you are available to help, and make the (hopefully just) unruly passenger aware that you are aware.

  6. Keep stuff like a flashlight or a large carabiner attached to your carry on bag – both would make for decent impact weapons. Metal pens might be good to keep in your bag as well.

  7. High intensity flashlight. I have carried more than one on every flight I’ve been on post 9/11 and have never gotten a second look from TSA. Also, get some paracord and heavy metal buckles and make a strap for tying your carry on to your roller bag. That has never gotten a second look either. Blind em with the light/ strobe, bash em with the strap.

  8. Heavy duty steel writing implements are very good to carry on trips, as are flashlights, especially those with the tactical face. I guess I’ll start packing about 10 feet of paracord in my carry on too, a very sound idea! I usually have a pair of Hatch cut resistant gloves, they make nice driving gloves.

  9. Tsa looked not at my carabineer and E1b every time I have flown recently. If action needs to be taken, form a hasty coalition of the willing to take the fight to the bad guys. Larger numbers overcome smaller numbers, skilled or not.

  10. A leather belt with a good sized brass buckle (the solid kind with the small hook on the back) is ideal. Watch a fight or two outside of country bars, and you’ll quickly see how useful a belt wrapped around the hand with the buckle hanging loose on a few inches of belt can be.

    Like with SayUncle’s “soap in a sock”, a couple good hits from that buckle and it’s coloring books for Christmas.

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