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It's Time to Arm Airline Pilots

National Ledger | May 11, 2005
by Paul M. Weyrich

Arming airline pilots is an issue that should pack the wallop of a .44 magnum with grassroots organizations. In March the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations [CAPA] issued a report card assessing aviation security in our country. Aviation security is a complicated subject but on several vital subjects CAPA has assigned low grades to the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] and the airlines. The TSA received a “D” for its Federal Flight Deck Officer [FFDO] program, which arms pilots but has been minimally effective because “poor operational policies” restrict the number of pilots who should be trained and armed to handle terrorists.

The report noted, “Although TSA has doubled its training classes recently, far too few pilots are being trained and deputized. In addition, the application process is very cumbersome, which turns pilots away from the program.”

Captain David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance [APSA], an organization established by Airline Pilots Association [ALPA] members who were dissatisfied with ALPA’s opposition to armed pilots, stated last year that “Airport security is like a sieve.” APSA aggressively promotes the program to arm pilots. [The strategy airlines had employed with hijackers was to accommodate and negotiate rather than to escalate an attack. A September 21, 2001 article in The New York Times quoted Duane Woerth, President of ALPA as telling Congress, “We can’t be Sky King and Wyatt Earp at the same time.” ALPA quickly reversed its position. Its current press release states, “Arming trained and federally deputized pilots is only one part of the significant changes that have been effected since 9/11. Nevertheless, it provides a valuable layer of additional protection, and more importantly, it is another deterrent against a repetition of the 9/11 type of hijacking attack by terrorists.” ]

The Federal Flight Deck Officer [FFDO] program to arm pilots got a hostile reception from TSA. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta did not support arming pilots although an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority of Congress, the public and pilots embraced the idea. Commercial pilots were angered by redundant psychological testing that TSA required. Commercial pilots have taken similar tests to earn their pilot wings and demonstrated sound judgment when safely delivering their passengers and fellow crew members to their destinations.

Former Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA] officer Dean Roberts, an APSA spokesman, echoed APSA’s position when he told the Associated Press last year that the pilots are obligated to undergo physical and psychological evaluations. “I never filled out a 14-page application to be a DEA agent.” Many commercial pilots have military training and have flown combat missions. In a slide presentation APSA insisted that TSA’s pilot screening standards exceed those required of Federal Air Marshals. A TSA spokesman maintained that extensive testing was warranted: in the event of a terrorist plot the pilot would have to make a “life-or-death decision” and then resume flying the aircraft.

Pilots participating in the FFDO program must place their firearms in a separate lockbox when not in the cockpit because TSA contends that the pilots’ jurisdiction ends at the cockpit door. That requirement also angered the Airline Pilots Security Alliance and other organizations concerned with aviation security. APSA counters that nothing should limit a pilot’s enforcement authority and that a pilot should not be prohibited from carrying a weapon, as all law enforcement officers do whether in or out of their primary jurisdiction.

Deborah Sherman, an investigative reporter with the NBC News affiliate KUSA, in Denver, announced on March 3, 2004, that when commercial pilots participated in the FFDO program their weapons were misplaced when dead-heading [traveling as passengers either to or from an airport to fly, or return from, an assigned route]. Because TSA does not recognize pilots’ rights to carry a weapon outside the cockpit the pilots need to check their weapons. Senator Wayne Allard [R-CO] told Sherman that he was disappointed in TSA because the separation of a pilot from his gun would result in less security.

Senators Jim Bunning [R-KY] and Barbara Boxer [D-CA] introduced the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvement Act in 2004. [A companion bill in the House of Representatives was sponsored by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC.] Neither bill progressed during that election year but the Wilson Bill drew over 60 House cosponsors and the Bunning-Boxer Bill drew eight Senate cosponsors, including Senators Jim Talent [R-MO], Jeff Sessions [R-AL] and Jim Inhofe [R-OK].

The Bunning-Boxer and Wilson Bills would have allowed airline pilots to carry firearms, prohibited the use of the locked box to store the guns and allowed pilots to leave the cockpit to prevent acts of terrorism and defend the passengers and crew. Law enforcement and airport security personnel would need to know that the pilots were carrying weapons. The expectation is that amending legislation will be reintroduced in the near future.

Former Judge Michael Chertoff, the new Secretary of Homeland Security, was more receptive to the FFDO program when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio program last month. Chertoff told Hannity that “[a]rming pilots, having air marshals on board, having other law enforcement officials trained in a situation where they are in an aircraft so that they could use their weapons if there were an event — all of these are part of the layers of defense that we want to build into the aviation system.” Unfortunately, Captain Mackett notes that the costs of deploying air marshals on more than a fraction of the 27,000 commercial airline flights a day are prohibitive, costing as much as $13 billion a year.

Arming pilots was one weakness spotlighted by CAPA’s report. The report also warned that security around airports seriously is weak and inconsistent, and that little emphasis is placed on screening cargo and employees. Even more serious is the lack of protection our commercial jets have against surface-to-air missiles. Rep. John Mica [R-FL], Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last month mentioned that reports by both the Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security criticized the performance of federal passenger and baggage screeners. “Three and a half years after those horrific, terrorist attacks, there is still a vital need for immediate aviation security improvements,” warned Mica.

Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff’s attitude is welcome news but the grassroots — particularly those Americans who regularly fly commercial airlines — should pressure and Congress until the FFDO becomes an effective program. Informing neighbors and fellow fliers would increase awareness and support for reform. So would calls to radio talk shows and letters to editors. The Department of Homeland Security’s TSA must know that it will be judged by its willingness to implement the FFDO program.

Unfortunately our country is slow to implement regulations that would arm pilots, improve passenger screening, increase the amount of cargo screened and protect airplanes against attacks by surface-to-air missiles. Making sensible changes to TSA regulations governing the selection and training of pilots to carry weapons would be another important step. Let’s hope that Secretary Chertoff will be able to implement a program to arm pilots. He fortunately has mentioned publicly — in a Sean Hannity program — that he supports doing so. Commercial pilots surely should be able to protect their passengers, their fellow crew members and untold numbers of people on the ground should a life-threatening scenario suddenly occur. Absent that ability to protect there would be a terrible risk that one of the worst days in our country’s history — 9/11 — would be repeated.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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