Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A 40-year-old Federal Aviation Administration rule that allowed commercial airline pilots to be armed was inexplicably rescinded two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leading aviation security experts to lay at least some of the blame for the tragedy at the feet of airlines, none of which took advantage of the privilege while it was in effect.
The FAA adopted the armed pilot rule shortly after the Cuban missile crisis of 1961 to help prevent hijackings of American airliners. It remained in effect for four decades.
But in July 2001 – just two months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks – the rule was rescinded.
According to FAA officials, the rule required airlines to apply to the agency for their pilots to carry guns in cockpits and for the airlines to put pilots through an agency-approved firearms training course.
The aviation agency said, however, that throughout the life of the rule not a single U.S. air carrier took advantage of it, effectively rendering it “moot,” according to one agency official.
“In the past, FAA regulations permitted pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit provided they completed an FAA-approved training program and were trained properly by the airlines,” FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto told WND in a voice-mail message. “That was never put into effect because no requests for those training programs were ever made. …”
Takemoto said the newly created Transportation Security Administration is now responsible for deciding whether pilots can be armed. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act signed into law by President Bush Nov. 19, 2001, has a provision allowing pilots to be armed, but the law does not mandate that the right be granted.
The FAA failed to return numerous follow-up phone calls requesting to know why the rule was rescinded, who was responsible for the decision, whether a particular incident spurred the decision and whether the aviation agency believes the airlines share some culpability for never taking advantage of it in the first place.
Some security experts speculate that had airlines taken advantage of the rule, it likely would not have been rescinded by the FAA. And if it had been implemented by the airlines, they say, the Sept. 11 hijackings – which led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. – may never have occurred.
“It’s hard to say,” said Capt. Robert Lambert, a commercial airline pilot and founding board member of the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance. But in lieu of the attacks, he said he can’t understand why airlines still refuse to support arming their pilots.
“We’re convinced there was a myriad of reasons why the airlines refused to allow pilots to be armed” before the attacks, said Lambert. He said the airlines were likely concerned about liability issues, but “of course, they have a lot of liabilities after Sept. 11, too,” he added.
“For airlines not to trust us [with a gun in the cockpit] is totally ludicrous,” he said.
Other pilot advocacy groups have said arming pilots as a “last line of defense” against terrorist hijackings is a better option – even if some innocent passengers are inadvertently harmed – than having Air Force fighters blow entire airliners out of the sky, assuredly killing all aboard.
Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the TSA, said his agency wasn’t aware of the FAA’s former rule. But when asked if it could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, he refused to speculate, saying, “I won’t go there.”
Melendez also refused to say when or whether the agency would sanction arming pilots. “That will be announced in due time,” he told WND.
None of the airlines WND attempted to contact for this story returned inquiries asking whether they believed they shared some culpability for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bill Mellon, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines, initially responded but, after repeatedly declining to answer pointed questions as to why his company never applied for the FAA program, referred further inquiries to an airline industry group.
“Those are industry questions,” he told WorldNetDaily in an e-mail response, “not Northwest Airline questions,” referring the newssite to the Air Transport Association, or ATA, the industry’s primary trade group.
But the ATA, along with America West, American Airlines and United Airlines, also failed to respond to numerous requests for comment.
APSA’s Lambert said the ATA, which purports to speak for the entire airline industry, has “historically been against arming pilots,” a position he said was “hard to understand.”
According to published statements, the ATA said it has traditionally supported “more federal air marshals” instead.
Some lawmakers are working to implement new legislation that would require federal officials to “deputize” airline pilots and allow them to be armed.
The House Transportation Committee is considering H.R. 4635, called the “Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act,” which would make volunteer pilots Federal Flight Deck Officers, according to a published summary.
The bill would mandate – not simply ask – the “Under Secretary of Transportation for Security to … deputize qualified volunteer pilots as federal law enforcement officers to defend the cockpits of commercial aircraft in flight against acts of criminal violence or air piracy.”
The program would go into effect 90 days after it is signed into law, and would be implemented in conjunction with the federal air marshal program.
The head of the Center for the Study of Crime, Randall N. Herrst – an attorney by trade who said his arguments have been used successfully in anti-gun control cases – disagrees with the government’s intention of placing sky marshals on each flight. He says arming pilots would be a better, more cost-effective and faster plan to implement.
“At 35,000 flights a day, even if some marshals can cover two round trips per day on short routes, we will still need 90,000 sky marshals if we want at least two on each flight,” taking into account days off, vacations and sick days, he said.
He agreed that “there are no guarantees” armed pilots would have prevented the Sept. 11 hijackings. But he added: “That is the only course of action that could have stopped the attacks.”
Herrst said arming pilots would amount to a military principle known as “defense in depth.”
“If you have a choice,” he says, “you never depend on a single line of defense – you always have a second, third and fourth line as well.”
He is also suspicious that despite Sept. 11, lawmakers, bureaucrats and the White House are still dragging their feet over arming pilots.
“The reasons must be purely political,” he told WND. “[But] if there is another major round of hijackings, it will probably bankrupt the entire U.S. airline industry.”
“People are so obsessed with banning guns that they are willing to sacrifice human lives and a huge portion of our economy to political correctness,” he added.