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Homeland Security Debate Continues on Arming Commercial Airline Pilots - 2003-09-05


Layered defenses protect American land crossings, sea ports and airports, where most Americans come face to face with officials from the Transportation Security Administration, part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Tom Ridge, a former two-term governor from the State of Pennsylvania, is the Secretary of the 180,000 strong department. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington just days before the second anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary Ridge says the United States is making progress in the fight against terror.

“We can never guarantee that we are free from the possibility of a terrorist attack,” he says. “But we can say this: we are more secure and better prepared than we were two years ago. Each and every single day we rise to a new level of readiness and response - now the highest level of protection this nation has ever known.”

Secretary Ridge says Americans are safer today because security at U.S. borders is more robust and comprehensive than ever before.

“Equally important, we are safer because we have layered defenses around air travel,” he says, “everywhere from the curb to the cockpit. These include measures to arm our pilots and harden cockpit doors; the expansion of the Federal Air Marshal service to accompany travelers on flights; thousands of passenger and baggage screeners better trained to do their jobs; and federal security officers to oversee our airports.”

During his speech, Mr. Ridge announced a plan to increase dramatically the number of armed, federal law enforcement officers available to protect passenger aircraft during times of increased threat.

John Lott is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the newly released book The Bias Against Guns. He wonders why the U.S. government is spending all this money to train new air marshals.

“Marshals are valuable but they’re extremely expensive,” he says. “You’re talking about people that you’re paying upwards of $70,000 a year for. The job is extremely boring. These guys basically sit in an airplane. They’re not really allowed to actually go and read other things or take a nap or anything like that. They fly fewer hours each week than pilots fly, in part because the job is so boring. And they have an incredibly high attrition rate. They go and train these guys and often within six months or a year they leave the job.”

Mr. Lott says training airline pilots to act as deputized federal law enforcement officers with the ability to carry a firearm would be better. Many pilots agree. John Mazor is spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association in Washington, the union that initially proposed arming pilots.

“From the beginning the program was envisioned to be that of a federal law enforcement officer,” he says. “In other words, we didn’t approach this as ‘we’re airline pilots give us our guns.’ We approached it from the viewpoint that said we needed a trained, armed federal law enforcement officer in the cockpit to protect the cockpit, and it just so happens that airline pilots are the logical choice to do that.”

Mr. Mazor says that not only would pilots need to volunteer for training, they would have to undergo background checks and psychological testing. The rigorous screening has discouraged some pilots from applying.

While Mr. Mazor would not discuss the current number of armed airline pilots, which observers say is between 150 and 200, he says actual numbers aren’t important. What matters is having enough to act as a deterrent.

“The intent with the program to arm airline pilots,” he says, “just as with the Federal Air Marshals, which are armed federal agents who fly on flights, is not to try to catch terrorists in a trap so that we can shoot at them at 30,000 feet. The intent on both of those is really to be a deterrent. We want the terrorists to perceive that the target has been hardened to the point where hopefully they will go look elsewhere.”

Mr. Mazor says about three-quarters of pilots surveyed are in favor of voluntary training. Twice the U.S. Congress has approved a law that would let pilots carry guns. So why aren’t more pilots being trained? he asks.

Both the White House and the Transportation Department as well as airline companies oppose arming commercial airline pilots. However, forced into action by Congress, the Transportation Department held its first training in April.

Gun control groups in the United States, like the Violence Policy Center, also oppose arming pilots. The Center’s Executive Director Josh Sugarman says there are numerous statistics that show the hazard hand guns present when they are used to try to prevent crime in close quarters, like those of an airline cabin or cockpit.

“The Violence Policy Center believes very strongly that we should focus on prevention on the ground and not rest our hopes on shootouts in the air,” he says. “We believe that the primary job of airline pilots should be to fly the airplane and that it makes far more sense to protect the cockpit than to arm airline pilots. On top of that we now have a situation where everyone from a terrorist to the suicidal to those who have air rage know of a potential hand gun on an airliner. And we think that focusing on prevention on the ground is a far better approach than creating these possible scenarios.”

But Gregg Overman, Communications Director for the Allied Pilots Association, the union for the 12-thousand pilots of American Airlines, the world’s largest passenger carrier, points to the worst case scenario.

“Let’s face it,” he says, “the alternative if an aircraft is successfully commandeered is – if there is sufficient notice - for a U.S. fighter jet to intercept and shoot down an airliner full of innocent civilians. I don’t think anybody considers that acceptable.”

He says until 1963 the federal government required all commercial pilots flying with U.S. mail to carry a gun and until 1987 pilots could choose whether or not they wanted to carry a gun. In all this time there was never a fatal accident involving an armed air line pilot.

“For a great many years in this country airline pilots were armed,” he says. “The reason that for the past few decades they have not been armed is the strategy – now obviously discarded – of complying with hijackers’ demands and being totally passive in the kind of situation that initially our pilots and those for United Airlines found themselves in on September 11, 2001. We’ve re-thought a great many things with respect to aviation security over the last couple of years and arming airline pilots was one of those things.”

That’s the point supporters say: arming pilots is only one aspect of aviation security. If heightened airport protection, including more highly trained baggage screeners and immigration officials fails, and a determined terrorist is able to board a commercial air plane, an armed pilot may be the last line of defense against an attack. Supporters say we cannot afford to omit this critical layer of defense.

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