Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A commercial airline pilots’ group is pushing for Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that would allow pilots to be armed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance says it is advocating “a controlled, well thought out, rational and safe program for arming carefully screened and trained airline pilots with firearms,” according to the group’s website.
APSA’s “Federal Law Enforcement Officer-Aviation (FLEO-A) program will provide the strongest possible deterrent to terrorists that would contemplate Sept. 11-style attacks by denying them cockpit access, and thus control of the airliner,” says the group. Should that fail, APSA says its program “will provide a last resort, a final line of defense of airline passengers, crew and innocent citizens on the ground.”
Specifically, APSA said only pilots who volunteered for the program would be accepted. Also, pilots would have to be carefully screened and attend training “administered by an appropriate federal law enforcement agency such as the FBI.”
“A thorough background check, a board interview with an FBI or other lethal-force review panel and successful completion of a thorough and rigorous FBI or other approved training program will be required,” said the group. Pilots completing the program would then be sworn-in as federal law enforcement officers.
Firearms “experts” would select the appropriate weapon and ammunition to be carried by pilots, and no pilot would be paid by the government “for participation in the FLEO-A program,” said the group.
Officials with the group say they are stepping up their efforts in making a case for arming pilots in advance of the FAA’s Feb. 14 deadline for submitting public comment about how to craft regulations that would permit pilots and other commercial airline crewmembers to carry firearms and less-than-lethal weapons.
“We are also requesting comments on issues related to provision of emergency services on commercial air flights during emergencies by law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians,” said a summary of the request.
The agency, which is part of the Transportation Department, has already issued new post-Sept. 11 security guidelines.
“In response to President Bush’s call to strengthen aircraft security,” said a Jan. 11 press release, the agency “published new standards to protect cockpits from intrusion and small-arms fire or fragmentation devices, such as grenades.”
“The Aviation and Transportation Security Act authorizes the FAA to issue today’s final rule that requires operators of more than 6,000 airplanes to install reinforced doors by April 9, 2003,” the statement said.
APSA said airliners offer “soft targets” to potential terrorists because passengers and pilots alike are screened for weapons prior to boarding.
“The result is a virtual guarantee to terrorists that if they can bring any kind of weapon on board, they will be the only armed persons on board and will be, in fact, in command of the aircraft,” APSA said.
Lawmakers have expressed confidence that a law Bush signed last September following the attacks – the Aviation and Transportation Security Act – permits airlines to arm pilots.
“We believe that armed pilots are a first line of deterrence to terrorism, because terrorists will know that armed pilots will be behind that reinforced cockpit door to defend the aircraft,” said Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., in a December letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
“We further believe that armed pilots are the last line of defense against terrorism, because when all else fails, an armed pilot will be provided with the most effective means to disable a terrorist,” he wrote. “Accordingly, we hope that you and the new undersecretary will move expeditiously to implement Section 128 [of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act].”
“Security can and should be improved, but we must recognize that even the best security is limited and imperfect,” says APSA. “Airline travel is a public accommodation; it is in fact mass transit. Gaining access to an airliner is never going to be as difficult as gaining access to a sensitive building on a military installation, and any security system we build will have to recognize the public nature of airline travel.”
“As airline pilots, we are entrusted with an aircraft valued at many millions of dollars, thousands of gallons of jet fuel and the un-quantifiable value of the lives of our passengers,” said the group. “Today’s final line of defense for the new hijacking threat involves the unthinkable specter of a U.S. military fighter jet shooting down a defenseless passenger airliner. A more reasonable line of defense prior to that horrendous measure would be to provide pilots with firearms and firearms training to defend our passengers, crew and airplane.”
But not all commercial airline groups favor arming pilots.
“Clearly, the events of Sept. 11 are justification for all elements of air travel security to be reviewed and improved – but is arming pilots the correct move?” the editorial asks.
“We have all gone a little crazy, and I believe much of the industry is taking the wrong route,” says Edward Plaisted of Skytrax. “If airport security fails, and a terrorist is able to board an aircraft, the lack of any metal cutlery or having pilots armed with stun guns is not going to prevent a disaster from happening.”
“The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have inspired, and rightly so, a national debate regarding how best to heighten security at U.S. airports and on commercial flights,” said the group’s president, Michael D. Barnes, shortly after the attacks.
“In this difficult time, we understand the intense fears of airline pilots, passengers and crew following the horrific hijackings, and we support doing everything we can to strengthen aircraft and airport security,” he continued. “However, we do have some serious concerns about recent proposals to arm airline pilots. Safety begins with prevention. We need to make sure that armed terrorists are not able to board aircraft in the first place.”
The Brady Campaign recommends “measures include requiring background checks on all gun sales to prevent criminals, and would-be terrorists, from obtaining guns, and retaining records of gun purchases, so that weapons can be traced if they are used in a crime or terrorist act,” Barnes said.
But Tanya Metaksa, former executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, says arming pilots will not only enhance flight safety but would improve the public’s safety overall.
“On my next airplane ride I want my cockpit crew trained and armed. It’s not only my life at stake, but also the lives of thousands on the ground who depend on that cockpit crew defending and flying that airplane to safety,” she wrote in a Feb. 5 column for FrontPage Magazine.
“America witnessed mayhem in the skies on Sept. 11. It has also witnessed trouble in the air on several occasions since then. We have had incidents in the air where United States Air Force jets with the license to shoot escorted civilian airplanes to safe landing sites,” she said. “At those times, the cockpit crews were helpless. I am sure that the passengers on those planes would support arming their pilots.”