December 28 2014, updated 12:21am

Hostage pilot slams lax plane security

Last updated 01:13 10/02/2008

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A former Air New Zealand pilot who was held hostage on board his aircraft by a drug-crazed man armed with a knife has accused officials of playing down incidents such as Friday's attempted hijacking as "one-offs" and says it is time security measures were implemented to protect passengers and crew.
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Chris Payne, who was held at knife point for an hour by a man who boarded his commercial aircraft at Nelson airport after the passengers had disembarked on January 22, 1997, said regional airport security had not improved since a Sunday Star-Times expose more than three years ago revealed how easy it was to take weapons on board.

His comments come as the Somalian woman accused of stabbing two pilots and a passenger on an Air NZ flight from Blenheim to Christchurch on Friday appeared in court.

Asha Ali Abdille, 33, a vineyard worker of Blenheim, was remanded in custody for a psychiatric report after being charged with wounding one of the pilots with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and injuring the other pilot and a woman.

The JPs in Christchurch District Court suppressed the victims' names and refused to allow cameras to film the woman's 10-minute appearance. Abdille had been in the care of mental health services before the incident.

The flight captain involved in the hijacking attempt remains in Christchurch Hospital after surgery for injuries to both hands.

"He is, as you can imagine, quite shocked," his wife said. "It's something you don't expect to happen in New Zealand." She said he was still in disbelief and had not yet talked about his actions. She had flown to Christchurch to be with him.

The first officer was discharged from hospital on Friday after receiving stitches for a stab wound to his foot.

In a statement released by Air New Zealand the pilots said "safety for our customers and crew is top priority and our intuition, training and experience led to a positive outcome".

The captain publicly thanked his first officer for flying and landing the aircraft in "a life threatening situation. His professionalism allowed me to focus on managing the overall situation and dealing with the offender."

Payne, a former civil aviation regional director who became a "safety activist", said the government policy that set the threshold for domestic security screening at aircraft with 90 seats or more was outdated and unrealistic.

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Air New Zealand no longer operated the whisper jets for which the 90-seat policy was introduced. The Beechcraft involved in Friday's incident had 19 seats.

"We can obviously afford all of this [security] for 90 people, we can't afford it for 89, it just makes it rather ridiculous. What they're failing to appreciate ... is that if the aircraft is used as a bomb ... and if they dive at a building, how many people on board is the least of your worries."

Payne was critical of Air New Zealand deputy chief executive Norm Thompson's description of Friday's incident as "unique", as it did not count his hostage situation and other incidents not made public.

"They're playing this woman down because she's a troubled person, but most of these people are troubled in some way. It doesn't actually matter if they're troubled or they're your grandmother if they've got a sharp knife, they're going to do the same damage."

Payne said a compromise was needed on regional security. "There are varying degrees of security. Between the whole nine yards you apply for international travellers and no security at all there are surely a hell of a lot of measures that could be taken. If you don't learn from history it'll happen again."

Payne believed a number of pilots were concerned about security. Security spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association, Paul Lyons, who has supported the pilots involved in Friday's incident, said he had "sympathy for Payne's point of view" but it was important not to rush any changes.

He said the association would be closely involved with a review of Friday's hijacking.

As part of the Star-Times investigation in October 2004, reporters took box cutters on board regional flights throughout New Zealand. They offered to hand them over but on several occasions were told not to.

Asked whether measures were taken in the wake of the expose, Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Bill Sommer said security measures were reviewed constantly. He said an interim report on Friday's incident should come within a week.

Mark Everitt, general manager of the Aviation Security Service, said the decision not to have security on regional flights was made after balancing cost against benefits.

Transport Minister Annette King said she would be guided by any recommendations from the CAA investigation, but present security met international standards. Air NZ spokeswoman Tracy Palmer said they did not comment on security matters and referred us to the CAA.

- Sunday Star Times

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