Law Enforcement Got Lucky (Yes Lucky) Catching Terrorist Suspect On A Plane

Last night around 11:45pm law enforcement officials arrested Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the most recent New York, Times Square, terrorism attempt after he had boarded Emirates Flight 202 for Dubai, from New York’s JFK Airport.  Law enforcement was quite close to missing Shahzad, in fact not only was Shahzad on board Emirates Flight 202, the aircraft was ordered by the Tower to “Go back to the gate immediately” after it was already positioned for departure from Runway 22 Right (22R).

While law enforcement worked feverishly to identify the person responsible for placing a car bomb in New York’s Times Square, certain changes in how passenger information is relayed to law enforcement might have captured Shahzad before he set foot on the aircraft.

Back in April of 2008 I wrote about proposed changes for passenger identification by the Department of Homeland Security that would place a burden on airlines by requiring them to finger print all airline passenger prior to their departure, then transmit this passenger information as soon as the passenger departs the United States …

… yes, as soon as the passenger ‘departs‘ the United States.

The vast majority of the Department of Homeland Security proposal was rife with problems and holes, but the current system in place now does not require airlines to transmit the final passenger manifests prior to departure.   The Department of Homeland Security claims that reviewing all international departing passenger manifests prior to flight departure is time consuming and a significant logistics challenge.

I completely agree, looking for the constant presence of a needle in the haystack is time consuming and is a logistics challenge, however it is a challenge that must be undertaken.

No, I do not agree with finger printing departing passengers … I never have. Finger printing upon departure is to late … and may be useless if tracking people with no criminal history and passengers with no finger prints on file. But having access to the names and passport information of all passengers on board a flight before it departs is critical. Having live access to airline passenger manifests may prevent flights being turned around after departure or completely missing a suspect who has fled the country.

Law enforcement got lucky catching Faisal Shahzad on board Emirates Flight 202. Had law enforcement waited 30 seconds the aircraft would have been airborne, 90 seconds it would have been banking a hard left and on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean over The Rockaways, in less than 5 minutes the aircraft would in the airspace over international territorial waters … and then catching Shahzad would require action by either the airline to turn the aircraft around, or international diplomacy to either divert the aircraft or have Shahzad apprehended in Dubai … which is problematic as the United Arab Emirates has no extradition treaty with the United States.

Law enforcement should not get lucky that a passenger manifest is available before an international flight gets to the runway. Law enforcement should have access to this information before the cabin door shuts and before the aircraft pushes back from the gate.  The safety and security of the traveling public and the apprehension of criminals … anywhere … should not hinge on ‘we got lucky with that airline!

Below is a YouTube clip with the audio of Emirates Flight 202 being ordered back to the gate.

Happy Flying!



  1. Thanks for posting the link to the clip.

    The requirement for transmission of passenger “manifest” (API) data for international flights departing from the USA is contained in the revised APIS final rule published 23 August 2007 at 72 Federal Register 48320, 48345:

    The deadline varies depending on the method the particular airline has established, from the choices offered by CBP, for connectivity, but in no case (except air ambulances responding to medical emergencies) is it later than the time the aircraft is “secured”, i.e. when the doors are closed but with the aircraft still on the ground at the gate, before departure:

    “(i) For manifests transmitted under paragraph (b)(1)(ii)(A) and (B) of this section, no later than 30 minutes prior to the securing of the aircraft;

    “(ii) For manifest information transmitted under paragraph (b)(1)(ii)(C) of this section, no later than the securing of the aircraft; and

    “(iii) For an aircraft operating as an air ambulance in service of a medical emergency, no later than 30 minutes after departure.”

    Other aspects of the APIS rule are discussed in more detail at:

  2. Edward,

    From what I understand from speaking to the DHS is that the information must be ‘available’ at the time the door is secured, but not transmitted. Additionally, the DHS has no system in place for real-time monitoring of those passenger manifests. If they want to find someone they need to know essentially a bit about their travel plans or just try an get lucky and find the name in the haystack of unprocessed data.

    Also, keep in mind, that while Customs & Border Protection is the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and other DHS entities are not always the best about sharing information, even in internally. All data is not processed and dealt with equally, which in it should be when it comes to mining through passenger manifests.

    Happy Flying!


  3. It’s hard to know what else airlines have been ordered to do in secret Security Directives. But the regulations currently in effect, as linked above, explicitly require not just “availability” of the data to CBP but (1) transmission by the airline to CBP using specified methods and systems (albeit ones to be further defined in secret Security Directives), and (2) receipt by the airline of a “clearance” message by the airline with respect to each passenger. The real-time monitoring of those transmissions is conducted by the systems — a mix within the “black box” of robots and humans — that make the real-time decisions of whether to return “cleared”, “selectee”, or “not cleared” messages. The regulations clearly require a “push” of the data by the airline to CBP, and a real-time CBP response, not merely availability of the data for on-demand “pull” by CBP.

    It’s possible that more than 2 years after the regulations took effect, the DHS (still) hasn’t implemented the regulation or given the secret orders to airlines specifying how they are supposed to fulfill their obligations under the regulations. If so, that’s most likely because of the extent to which they would require expensive, slow, complex changes to airline IT and business processes, as airlines and others told the CBP when these rules were first proposed. In other words, if the regs haven;t been fully implemented, it’s because it is impossible to implement them, or at least would be prohibitively expensive, time consuming, and disruptive to the normal flow or civil aviation. But it’s not for lack of trying on CBP’s part to put in place a permission-based travel control regime with a default of “no”, or for lack of having promulgated the regulations (unconstitutional ones violating U.S. treaty obligations, but that’s another story) to do so.

  4. Ed,

    I am going to e-mail you later. I have an insight into this which I’d rather not put out in the public comments. I’ve already had the TSA send Special Agents to my house three times in two days regarding Security Directives. I’ll try and get you the brief e-ail later this afternoon, or tomorrow morning.

    Happy Flying!


  5. An amazing tape. One point of interest was the evidently Australian captain on Emirates — obviously the traditional carriers handling North-Atlantic to Middle and Far east routes (e.g. British Airways, Qantas) have been so displaced by carriers like Emirates that have hubs along the route that even the legacy carriers’ pilots have switched employers. The captain’s accent symbolizes what a major airline Emirates has become, and how important it will be for security to develop a good working relationship with Emirates and others like it.

  6. Listening to the radio this morning, it appears that they at least attempted to use the no-fly list to catch the guy (not sure if this particular mechanism is what ended up matching the records), and now there’s talk about tightening the time requirements for searching records from 24 hours to 2 hours after the no-fly list is updated (again, all this information from the radio).

    Isn’t this some serious function creep for the no-fly list? The man was apprehended not because anyone thought he was a threat to aviation, but rather because he was wanted for a crime already performed and was thought to be trying to flee the country (which he was). Are there any rules about using the no-fly list for this purpose? Can they put someone on the no-fly list because they are a murder suspect? Owe taxes? Owe child support? Can they stop a person from flying domestically because they’re wanted for a crime?

    Don’t get me wrong — I think it was important to nail the suspect, and I feel that the use of the no-fly list was probably justified in this case. Also, for all that the post says about the lack of coordination between DHS agencies, I suspect that the fact that the man was wanted for terrorism rather than another crime made it easier to use this tool (if indeed it was used). Nevertheless, the response of tightening the no-fly window probably not the answer, because the no-fly list is not intended (and cannot really function) as an exit control system for the country. The U.S. should check the need for improved exit controls (for terrorists as well as suspects in other crimes), and at the same time provide safeguards that the no-fly list is not abused as a general law enforcement tool.

  7. 5. DBX – regarding the employment of ‘ex-pat’ pilots in Emirates, it’s hardly a new trend either with Emirates or other international carriers such as Cathay, Etihad etc – many Aussies pilots I knew have been flying with these airlines for years. There are many reasons, financial being a significant one – tax-free inducements are offered, it’s a great way to make a bunch of dough for a few years.

    However, there is a distinct and growing cultural divide between these expats and the ‘native’ pilots. Lately, some airlines have been attempting to screen out their ‘expat’ pilots via the so-called ‘religious-based promotion’ or RBO rule, in favour of native pilots esp in arabic airlines. The expat is becoming an endangered species in this context, rather the opposite of what you noticed.

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