The U.S. government and the aviation industry have taken major steps to improve security at airports and on airliners since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Armed federal marshals, reinforced cockpit doors, and rigorous pre-flight screening of passengers and baggage are now routine for passenger flights. But a key segment of the industry lacks the same tight security.
Air-freight companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service account for nearly 800,000 of the more than 16 million flights a year in the United States. Wide-bodied 727's and 757's carrying cargo if commandeered by terrorists - could have the same devastating impact as the hijacked passenger jets of September 11 on a major population center and the U.S. economy.
But cargo flights lack the security measures mandated two years ago for the passenger side. There are no federal air marshals; pilots can't carry weapons, and critics say screening procedures at freight-loading sites at airports are inadequate. Many cargo pilots are concerned about stowaways, disgruntled employees, or packages that may contain explosive devices.
Jim Shilling, who represents the 22,000-member Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations says guns are needed because as he sees it security at freight-loading sites is unreliable.
"Typically a lot of people come to me or the air cargo industry - and ask, 'why in the world do we need cargo pilots carrying guns? Some say, 'what are you all worried about, attack boxes?' Or something along those lines. Now, three or four weeks ago, we saw fishermen fishing off of JFK airport. They came ashore in the secure area of the airport. Those gentlemen walked around a couple of hours completely free. I think that typifies what can indeed happen," says Mr. Schilling. "If we get people into the airport area, either through the gates, which we think need to be strengthened, if we get people that are unknown in any number of ways on board a aircraft - if they're able to stowaway on the aircraft and it gets in the air and they're able to come forward, we have nobody behind us to protect us. If somebody is able to commandeer plane, we have a very serious issue on our hands."
Mr. Shilling notes that about three months ago, officials at an Ohio airport caught an al Qaeda operative spying on cargo aircraft operations and trying to get on a cargo plane.
Many cargo pilots want improved screening and background checks for workers transporting packages to the airports and loaders who have access to freight planes. Others say packages have to be checked more thoroughly.
Cargo flight captain Stephen Luckey says he transports all kinds of shipments. And there's no way to know if any one of them represents a danger. "I've carried everything from fine art, to TV sets, zoo animals, race horses, cars, tanks - anything that will fit in the aircraft," he says.
About 30 air cargo companies based in the United States ship most of the nation's air freight. Federal Express is the nation's and the world's largest cargo airline service, with more than 600 aircraft. Fed Ex, as it is known, transports more than three million shipments a day. Company spokeswoman Sandra Munoz says security is good and cargo pilot concerns have been exaggerated.
"We control the area around our property, our perimeters. We periodically check to make sure the procedures are adhered to. As far as screening of employees, Fed Ex has had a very comprehensive program of screening employees. I can't go into the details," she says. "We do a 10-year criminal record and background check of workers, not just those around aircraft. We probably know more about employees near our aircraft than certainly any passenger airline knows about anyone getting near or on their aircraft. We believe we have very tight security policies."
Companies like Fed Ex have been at the forefront of opposition to arming their pilots due, in large part, to the cost of training and arming the crews. But Fed Ex says it will comply if Congress, as expected, votes later this month to allow cargo pilots to carry guns in the cockpit. The pilots say the congressional action would be a major step in implementing one level of security for all carriers.