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Ask the Captain: How easy is it for a pilot to enter a hijacking code by mistake?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/7/2019 John Cox, Special to USA TODAY

Video provided by NBC News

On Wednesday, a pilot accidentally triggered a hijacking alert at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport by keying in the code in error. How easy is it to do that by mistake? And how do flight crews act when it’s not a false alarm? 

For security reasons, I can’t go into too much detail; however, there are special codes that pilots send to air traffic controllers if they have specific problems, such as an emergency, loss of communication or a potential hijack. These codes alert the controllers, who then notify the proper authorities. 

The codes, assigned by air traffic control, are unique to each flight. If the pilot erroneously inputs one of the critical codes, it can cause the controller to believe there may be a real emergency.

In the Air Europa case, the pilot entered the hijacking code by mistake while teaching a junior pilot. Normally, the first action by the controller is to verify the code is real; however, media coverage did not indicate whether the verification occurred.

Security officials are aware that critical codes may get entered erroneously. But until they determine that is the case, they approach the aircraft carefully and treat the onboard threat seriously. 

The authorities in Amsterdam reacted properly and thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm. 



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