Defense Training Goes Begging for Airline Crews

Shawn German, standing left, and Charles Ash teach self-defense to pilots Steve Brown, left, and Kevin Flom.
Shawn German, standing left, and Charles Ash teach self-defense to pilots Steve Brown, left, and Kevin Flom. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

After several hours of punching, kicking and disarming imagined attackers, two longtime airline pilots practiced what their instructors called an extremely effective technique to defend an airplane against a terrorist: eye-gouging.

The pilots and instructors lunged at each other and pretended to rake their fingernails down an assailant's face to inflict the maximum damage and possibly pop out an eyeball.

"It doesn't matter how big or how muscle-bound they are," instructor Shawn H. German told the pilots during a recent day-long training session in Alexandria. "If you get them in the eye, they are going to go down."

Although the pilots said the course was valuable, federal officials are struggling to boost the participation of airline crew members in the one-day program. Only two -- both of whom had experience in self-defense -- showed up to take the Monday morning class. And neither was a flight attendant, the target group for the training. Federal officials have canceled other classes in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in recent months because of low turnout.

The free program offered by the Transportation Security Administration has trained 1,750 flight-crew members, most of them flight attendants, since it began three years ago. The graduates represent less than 1 percent of the 120,000 flight attendants and nearly 100,000 pilots who are eligible to take the course.

The program, which TSA officials say is part of their effort to prevent hijackings, is designed to give flight crews several basic self-defense techniques and teach them to think about how to defend themselves and their cockpits.

The courses, which are offered at 10 sites around the country, have not been heavily promoted by the government or airlines. They are held at community colleges, some far from airports and hard for flight crews to reach.

The airlines do not give crew members time off to attend the training, which means employees have to do it on their free time.

"We are not satisfied with the metrics and the level of instruction," said John A. Novak, assistant director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, the TSA division that runs the program. "This voluntary training should be taken advantage of."

Other top officials were more blunt. "We are extremely frustrated," said one official in the Air Marshal Service who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the news media about the issue. "We need to do a better job of promoting this and finding better locations for flight attendants."

Air Marshal Service officials said they were taking steps to improve attendance. Last year, they cut the three-day sessions to one day. Enrollment has increased, but it still lags behind expectations, officials said.

Officials said they also plan to pass out more brochures and put up posters in airports to promote the classes, which cost the agency about $300 per participant.

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