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Kung Fu Flight Attendants

(March 15, 2002)

In the wake of September 11, flight attendants are reluctantly finding themselves at the battlefront of homeland security with very little training to help them cope. Now, come mid-March, all airlines will be required to implement a self-defense training program for their flight crews. Should passengers feel safer if flight attendants go the way of Stallone, Chan, or Van Damme? Maybe.

FAA Directive

Prior to the September 11 attacks, flight crew training was based on the hijackings of the 1970s, when hijackers used planes as transportation rather than weapons of terrorism. For years, airline crews have been trained to be friendly and accommodating with hijackers.

Not anymore.

Airlines have until March 19 to develop new training programs based on the FAA's guidelines, which include self-defense and other security techniques. The new programs are required to include better tools and procedures for communication between the cabin crew, cockpit, and ground during emergency situations. The FAA will then have 30 days to review the airlines' training proposals and either approve, reject, or recommend changes to ensure compliance with the new guidelines.

Rambo Training

According to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), flight attendants will also be taught separation techniques for protecting the cockpit and self-defense techniques designed specifically for the aircraft environment. Crews will also participate in live situational training exercises geared to help them deal with any threatening situation from air rage to an armed terrorist.

International Protective Services (IPS), a Hollywood, FL, security firm, has developed a "High Altitude Emergency Management'' program and presented it to several airlines. Among the tactics in the IPS program are takedown techniques and self-defense moves. IPS says the goal is to give flight attendants the techniques and confidence to fend off any immediate threat and to take control of a threatening situation.

However, one important part of the overall training program is still being debated: the use of non-lethal protective devices such as stun guns and chemical sprays. The FAA is working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to determine the specific requirements of the self-defense training program. Currently, onboard kits for flight attendants and pilots already contain plastic handcuffs; however, they may eventually hold a supply of pepper spray-saturated towelettes, stab-proof vests, and cut-resistant gloves, which have yet to be approved.

A Fighting Chance

"Coffee, tea, kick box with me" may become the new motto for today's flight attendants. However, will flight attendants with black belts really make passengers feel better about flying? One US Airways flight attendant I spoke with said, "I think having this type of self-defense training will have flight attendants feeling more confident. And, that will convey to the passengers that flight attendants are capable and in control."

Whether the new training will deter hijackers and assure passengers remains to be seen; however, flight attendants are determined to face the enemy and win.

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