Was the US Government Really Prepared to Kill Everyone Onboard a Paris-New York Flight Yesterday?

F-15 fighters were scrambled “to escort an Air France plane bound for JFK airport” yesterday (HT: Alan H.).

Anonymous threats had been phoned into police, and another JFK and two Newark flights were affected. Apparently a Boston flight was affected as well as well as one headed for Portland and Chicago.

The two F-15s “flew in a way so that the passengers and crew would not be able to see the military planes”

Ultimately,

One law-enforcement source said he believed the threats were an elaborate hoax and “none of this was real.’’

In all of the coverage over the incidents there’s nonchalant reference to an ‘escort’ by fighter jets. Reporting on the scrambling of military fighter jets is so matter of fact, and none of it outlines the purpose of implications of the jet ‘escorts’.

At most, this is hinted at.

“I’ve learned since [landing] we were followed in by two fighter jets, so that’s scary,” said Kelsey Straight, of Brooklyn. “I was a bit panicked.”

The only thing a military fighter jet is equipped to do in this circumstance is shoot down the plane. None of the coverage points out that these fighter jets could only have been used to kill everybody onboard.

Fighter jets have been scrambled in the past in situations where passengers fought over reclining a seat in economy. The government response is to prepare to kill all the passengers.

There’s a different moral question to wrestle with in a situation where a plane is actually taken over with the intention to use it as a missile. That happened one day 14 years ago. Scrambling jets now, though, without firm knowledge that this is occurring barely raises an eyebrow.

Bonus question for legal scholars of the internet: is the use of military air power to kill American citizens in U.S. airspace (there were certainly Americans onboard these flights, and US airlines have similarly been ‘escorted’) authorized by any Act of Congress? I don’t presuppose knowledge on this subject, but it seems like an interesting issue.

Either way, it would seem like awareness of the possibility, and its legal basis, isn’t broadly understood by the public at large, and thus worth noting in a news story on military fighter jets being scrambled in order to be in a position to shoot down a commercial airliner.

And it would seem worth noting under whose direct authority the fighter jets were scrambled, and who directly would be giving the order to kill everyone on board?

Aren’t these difficult moral questions that deserve greater discussion than that a plane was ‘escorted’…?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. meh… trying to understand the US is a waste of time, it does whatever it likes…regardless…

  2. Gary,

    It must be incredibly scary to learn that fighter jets are escorting your plane.

    There is also benefit of situational awareness. If needed, the F-15s can get a better look at the affected airliner, have visual contact with the cockpit, and give more direct instructions as needed to determine if the airplane is still under pilot control.

    So yes, there is concern about what the mission is, and if it is right or legal to shoot down a civilian plane, or even if the US military is prepared to do such a thing, but just scrambling a jet does not mean much, and for once, CNN has not sensationalized it.

  3. You wrote: Bonus question for legal scholars of the internet: is the use of military air power to kill American citizens in U.S. airspace (there were certainly Americans onboard these flights, and US airlines have similarly been ‘escorted’) authorized by any Act of Congress?

    It is.

    What the problem is, is social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., receiving protection as if they were actual ISPs like EarthLink, Verizon, etc., and then appending ads on the enabling of unregulated, instant disruption. Social Media are just websites that host sub-directories of themselves, that needs to be stopped immediately.

    Want a website? Buy your domain and its responsibility. Want a social media sub-directory for free, from which the social media domain is protected like an EarthLink ISP? Sorry, not allowed. That is where Congress fails.

  4. There are a host of things a fighter escort can do with regards to a passenger jet short of shooting it down:

    – Communicate visually (limited, of course) with the crew if their radios aren’t fully working
    – Provide an aircraft to follow to a specific destination
    – Encourage (or strongly encourage) the passenger jet to follow a specific course
    – Visually survey the cockpit and report back
    – Send a message to the passengers inside that help and/or discipline is at hand

    So to think that the only reason to scramble a fighter in response to a passenger jet encountering security issues is to prepare to shoot it down is incorrect.

  5. The legal question is interesting. Though I don’t know, my hunch since the Capitol is a potential target that the answer is yes; they’ve probably protected themselves. On the ethical issue, I guess one issue is how certain are you the plane will crash anyway? Hastening the crash by a couple of minutes to avoid a plane flying into a full football stadium does in fact present complicated ethics questions, but I expect the average non-philosopher or ethicist would say “yeah no problem” without giving it much deep thought.

    More than the legal or ethics question, I think the one that needs to be thought about is very seriously is what are the procedures and fail safes?

  6. @Frank – as mentioned in the piece the fighter plane wasn’t trying to communicate visually, it was flying in a manner so as to be unseen.

  7. Don’t fool yourself. Since 9-11 the US will shoot down any (as in ANY) aircraft that tries to crash into a busy area to kill large numbers of people. The pilots escorting a plane like this would give live updates to a ground control center with high level military leaders who in turn would be in connection with the President or highest available leader. A command to shoot down any such plane would likely come from the White House or at worst the highest ranking available military commander on duty.
    In addition foreign flagged aircraft are considered to be a higher threat level than domestic aircraft. The larger the aircraft (regardless of passenger count) the more likely it would be shot down if found to be a threat to the public or a government installation. The lives of the few would be sacrificed to save the lives of the many.
    The constitutional issues are more complicated. Most likely they would quote authorization under HR 5122 or such changes enacted after 9-11 to fight the war on terror. Most of these are in sharp contrast to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.

  8. I thought I read during 9/11 the planes they sent up were” un armed” — today do the planes carry live missiles etc when flying in the states?

  9. what would you have the US do Gary, not investigate or stand ready?! Do you remember what happened in New Ysrk, at all? Any country would send jets as standard operating procedure. Franks comments are right on. Sounds like the took up position without wanting to alarm / alert the flight until next steps were determined. Never been tailed by a cop?

  10. Either way, it would seem like awareness of the possibility, and its legal basis, isn’t broadly understood by the public at large, and thus worth noting in a news story on military fighter jets being scrambled in order to be in a position to shoot down a commercial airliner.

    Actually, given the passenger you quoted, it seems like the public understands it quite well.

  11. You have to scramble fighters whether or not you are prepared to shoot down the plane – because if you don’t, you have NO options to do so. It is purely a measure to leave the option available should something go wrong.

    As an example, I saw an article alluding to there being chemical/bio weapons allegedly on those planes. In which case, the jets could do a visual inspection to see if there were any leaking fluids or external pods designed to deliver it prior to landing.

    As far as “not being seen”, that, to put it mildly, remains to be seen. Passengers are oblivious by nature – as frequent fliers we know how true that is. Just because they didn’t see them didn’t mean they were hiding. And if they were, perhaps it was not to cause alarm and panic on the plane that may or may not become a death tube.

    At any rate, scrambling jets is the only option to see what’s really going on inside or on the outside of a plane, and the only way to give yourself an (absolutely horrible but possibly necessary) option should it be needed.

    -humbly from NYC.

  12. In this case, Posse Comitatus would not apply; once the aircraft is hijacked for use as a flying bomb, the hijackers (and the plane) become enemy combatants so it is not a case of the military carrying out a law enforcement function. The question is whether the killing of civilians on board is justified under LOAC, which states that civilian casualties (of any nationality) must be avoided but when they can’t be avoided, must be minimized to the extent possible to accomplish the mission. Essentially, as DaninMCI stated, it’s the few vs. the many arguement.

    Fun fact, Posse Comitatus doesn’t apply to the Navy (or Marines).

  13. @Levy Flight – I’m not actually saying they did the wrong thing, just that if it’s something that’s going to be done then it really ought to be fleshed out and not obfuscated. Complicated moral question here I think, at what point do you shoot down a civilian jetliner, don’t you agree?

  14. Personally I would rather be shot out of the sky by US fighter jets than have my aircraft be taken over by terrorists, become a hostage, end up dying anyway and taking out a building or any civilian population with us.

  15. Ok. nice story.

    And sorry about the “crosstalk” b/c I know you’re not really into that Gary, but wt “insert whatever you like” here …… is Peter talking about…

    What does a twitter account have to do with Static IP? What ? Nobody would be allowed to use a VPN either? Sorry … completely lost me on that chain of “commands”.

  16. My first question btw, was how did the passenger know that he or she had been escorted by a fighter jet AT ALL.

  17. Three points –
    1) Just because fighters were scrambled doesn’t mean that any action against the airliner was imminent. However, when we are dealing with aircraft, which can move very quickly and can cause tremendous damage, the prudent choice is to have all options available, should the situation change rapidly. The reverse situation – having a 9/11 situation repeat itself when the military could have potentially stopped it – seems far worse.

    2) For almost everyone in this country, it’s not a complicated moral question at all. We will never be in position to make that choice; it is merely a reality we have to live with, however we so choose.

    The decision to take down a civilian airliner would only be made by the President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief. For him, it is likely – hopefully – a profound struggle he has considered at some point during his presidency. This is a reminder that, whatever your political views, we need to consider that in electing a president, we are electing someone that has to make these sorts of choices.

    3) If anyone chooses to fly in commercial aircraft and isn’t aware that nations will shoot them down to prevent them from being used as weapons of mass destruction, then that person needs to take a few minutes and consider the implications of this reality. While it is exceptionally unlikely to ever happen to any of us, it is a scenario that could happen.

  18. @DaninMCI. Why would a foreign aircraft be higher risk than a US aircraft? All the planes taken over on 9/11 were US, not foreign.

  19. I my blockbuster, Executive Orders, I boarded a passenger jet from a stealth fighter using a special pressurized tube. Then we took out the terrorists and won the day.

  20. Yeah. I’m going to agree that this is not a complicated moral decision at all. There is always that point beyond which it is too late. Right up until that point, you give then every opportunity to prove they are not a threat. But reclining seat issue or terrorist threat, protocol should remove any last minute moral conflicts.

  21. Shooting down the airliner is not the only option of the fighters. Fighter jets have anti-missile defenses such as flares and electronic counter measures that could have been used to protect the airliner from a missile directed at the civilian plane.

  22. Yeah, using “protocol” to avoid difficult questions seems backwards.

    And even if you have what seems to be a pretty clear morality backed protocol, it can never anticipate every question. Whether or not to give those with their fingers on the button judgment to deal with such circumstances is a complicated question pretty famously explored in a host of movies where the button in question was the button for the nukes, but I don’t think there is a clear consensus other than in the minds of never-really-had-to-face-the-hard-question Cowboys.

  23. Wait, @Jim you think these planes were under attack from other aircraft? Has there *ever* been a commercial aircraft shot down over US airspace by a hostile fighter??

  24. Gary, I recognize your expertise in the points and miles game as well as certain aspects of commercial aviation, but I was unaware of your expertise in military operations and homeland security policy.

    You stated,
    “The only thing a military fighter jet is equipped to do in this circumstance is shoot down the plane.”

    Lay off the sensationalism and stick to what you are an expert at.

    Accordingly, I greatly appreciate your blog and awards service. I wouldn’t be as far along in the game without them!

  25. “please share what else you think they could do.”

    Gary, Frank and Noah have already given examples of what the F-15s could have done had the situation warranted.

  26. Garry,

    I agree with you 100%! The jets can not really do anything other than shoot the plane out of the sky!

    The first post here was the best – it is really difficult to try to explain/defend a lot of things the us government does. I think it does it to make the masses of this country feel their ideas are sain – when they usually are not!

    I flew out of Providence the day the airlines started fluing after 9/11 as my home airport Boston was closed. I went to Denver the next week. I went. To Malaysia in October. SOOOOOO many Americans thought I was crazy to do all these things! My thought was why not!!!!!

  27. sorry but this all comes off as naive sensationalism.

    were the national guard troops dispatched to baltimore really prepared to kill disorderly civilians???

    yes. if the situation warranted.

    are thousands of armed police officers really prepared to shoot and kill american citizens on a daily basis?

    absolutely. if the situation warrants it.

    you’re creating some kind of sweeping moral issue out of what is essentially the worst-case scenario that could occur when military aircraft are ordered to intercept airborne commercial flights experiencing emergency circumstances. that’s disingenuous. obviously fighter jets have the ability to take these aircraft down. but it’s a false equivalency (and histrionic) to think that this is their sole imperative and that each situation where they don’t is simply luck in the nick of time.

    again, if destruction — as you insist — is their sole imperative, well, then every soldier’s sole imperative is to kill. and we know that’s not true.

    i for one have a lot more faith in my country’s military and defense leaders when it comes to executing irrevocable orders.

  28. Wow. Sensationalist posts like this make me not want to read this blog. If you can’t think of anything the F-15 escorts can do other than shoot the plane down, you’re really not trying very hard.

    This was a very disappointing post.

  29. @Frank – you make very valid points, however I would argue that they are only preliminary acts to decided whether to shoot it down or not

    I’m guessing it all depends on which angle you’re reading this article from

  30. Gary,

    I respect your knowledge and expertise on many aspects of the FF and Travel world, however this post makes me lose a lot of respect and not want to read your blog. As others have pointed out, it is a pretty sensationalist article and seems like a poor attempt to get more views. As a military pilot, I can say with all due respect that you have no idea what you are talking about, and should do a little research before posting wild exclamations such as this one. As many others have pointed out, there are a great deal of things a fighter escort can do for a civil air disturbance other than shoot it down. In fact, in 99+% of the instances in which a fighter escort is scrambled in the US, shooting the aircraft down is among the last intended courses of action the pilots are considering as they enter the situation. You are mistaking a capability for an intention. A police officer is capable of shooting you dead in a routine traffic stop, however that is more than likely not their intention or even crossing their mind when they pull you over for rolling a stop sign. I don’t see you posting articles stating “Is the police department really prepared to shoot me in the head when they pulled me over yesterday?” simply because the officer was carrying a firearm. Take off the tinfoil hat and use common sense.

  31. @Rich So what can a fighter pilot DO to affect a jetliner BESIDES shoot it down if the jetliner does not do what he tells it to do? If there is something besides shoot it down, please be so kind to inform me of what it is.

    I was in law enforcement for 23 years and your analogy of a cop pulling someone over in inapt at best. There is NO physical contact possible between the fighter jet (and pilot) and the jetliner. ONLY a cannon or missile.

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