Do aircraft require keys to operate? Every aircraft is different, however, most small private aircraft feature a lock and key system. Meanwhile, most large airliners require almost no locks at all. The cabin is open at all times – although getting to it may be quite the challenge.
There was a time when plane hijackings went rampant. Although it has mostly been lost in history, hijackings used to be a common occurrence around the world. In fact, during the Vietnam Era between the years of 1968 and 1972, over 130 hijackings took place in the United States alone. Since, the amount of stolen planes and hijackings has decreased significantly due to the increase of security at most airports following the attacks of 9/11.
Despite the decreased rate of stolen aircraft, dozens of them are still stolen every year. The obvious solution to preventing aircraft theft is implementing the same security features cars have – locks and alarms. However, locks and keys are typically researched for smaller aircraft.
Small aircraft are typically housed at smaller airports with significantly less security. Some planes remain outside on the tarmac for most of the time, making them especially vulnerable to theft. Taking a look at the iconic Cessna 152 reveals a small lock on the door. On the dashboard is also a secondary ignition switch which is activated by the same key.
Small lock on the outside of the aircraft [Edited Image Source: Joao Carlos Medau/Wikimedia Commons]
Some people opt to increase the security features of their aircraft. Often, pilots include locks on their propellers which prevents the aircraft from functioning properly. Further security measures can be taken by adding locks to the throttle as well. Small aircraft typically feature more anti-theft devices for a number of reasons, predominantly, for the lack of surveillance and security.
On the opposite spectrum, and somewhat counterintuitively, large airliners typically do not feature many – if any – security features at all. The doors remain unlocked for the entire operation of the vehicle. Taking a look at the door of the Airbus A321 reveals no lock and key system. The same is true for most large airliners.
[Image Source: Christopher Doyle/Wikimedia Commons]
Although airliners seldom feature keys, they are rarely stolen. Technically, someone could enter the aircraft and start it up without much hassle – assuming they can enter the vehicle. Even while airborne, the doors remain unlocked. However, the internal pressure of the cabin seals the door against the frame, making it impossible to open during operation.
Prop lock. [Image Source: Sporty’s Pilot Shop]
The tight security measures also make it difficult for any unwelcome thieves to reach the vehicle in the first place. Stealing a commercial airliner would require circumventing the advanced airport security systems.
Most international airports have ground crew working among the aircraft 24/7. Air traffic controllers also monitor the position and movement of all the aircraft at all times. Security cameras monitor nearly every inch of the airport, able to report any unauthorized movement.
The tight security of international airports makes it nearly impossible to steal commercial aircraft. Even at less secure airports, aircraft theft reports come few and far between. Some pilots may choose to leave the doors open so robbers do not use excessive force to open the doors, damaging the structure of the aircraft in the process. Instead of risking damage, many pilots would rather rely on authoritative forces to discover and return the aircraft.
Captain Joe, a YouTuber and commercial pilot further explains why most commercial planes do not require keys.
Although on the ground there are seemingly few security features on individual aircraft, in the air, commercial airliners are even more difficult to steal or hijack after security systems were substantially increased following 9/11.
The other security features keeping you safe in the air
Air marshals are renowned for sitting in on regular flights in regular civilian clothes. However, less people are aware of the extensive training flight attendants regularly go through to ensure they can thwart any threat. On most commercial airliners, the crew carries duct tape and zip ties at all time. If a passenger starts acting out of line, then the crew has the authority to apprehend and hold a perpetrator until the airliner is on the ground.
Moreover, if a hijacker is able to overthrow the cabin crew, they will still be met with a fortified bullet proof cockpit that is almost impossible to enter from the outside once locked. Outside the door is a security camera to monitor any traffic. The pilot can watch it at any time to see what is going on right outside the cockpit.
The reinforced bullet-proof door ensures only authorized personnel can enter the cockpit. The cabin crew is given a code that when entered, prompts the pilots someone is trying to enter the cockpit. Then, the pilot authenticates the visitor by looking at the security camera. Once everything checks out, the door is opened and it’s promptly locked behind.
In emergency situations, for example, if the pilots become unconscious for whatever reason, there is a special code that can unlock the door at any time. The code gives a 30 second warning to the pilots which can be overridden at any time. If it is not, then after the 30 seconds, the door opens for merely 5 seconds.
Although most aircraft do not feature many anti-theft devices, they are rarely stolen due to the complicated nature of stealing the aircraft, taking off undetected, and then landing the plane at a remote location where the plane cannot be tracked. It is more common for smaller aircraft, but for the large part, aircraft do not require a lock and key at all.