October 1, 2001
Why Leave Pilots Defenseless?
In the days since the September 11th tragedy, hundreds of Americans have contacted my office concerning airline security. Most are angry and appalled that our planes were left so vulnerable to hijacking, especially considering the terrorists needed only simple boxcutting knives to carry out their depraved plan. The American people understandably are shocked at the ease with which the airplanes were overtaken and the defenseless pilots removed from the cockpit. The resounding message that people have conveyed to my office is very clear: the federal government should allow pilots to be armed.
The case for arming pilots is simple. The fundamental duty of any pilot is to ensure the safe operation of his aircraft. Safety is utterly compromised if a terrorist takes control of a plane, or violently attempts to do so. Our commercial pilots fly very precious human cargo, in very dangerous and expensive machines capable of killing many people on the ground. Whether we like it or not, part of a pilot's job in this modern era is to guard his plane, which is every bit as valuable to our enemies as a bank vault is to a criminal. So why do we guard the bank vault, but not the plane in flight? Pilots clearly must be able to defend themselves and their passengers, and the most direct and sensible approach is to permit them to carry firearms in the cockpit.
We should recognize that pilots themselves overwhelmingly favor having the choice to carry a gun when they fly. In fact, some have refused to return to work until they are permitted to do so. The airline pilot's unions, including the large Air Line Pilot's Association, recently urged Congress to allow arming of pilots. Congress, the administration, and the FAA should not second-guess the actual pilots who ultimately stand in harm's way in the event of a hijacking attempt. Surely pilots know better than any of us how best to maintain security in the skies.
FAA regulations effectively prohibit flight crews from carrying weapons. Although airlines technically may send employees to FAA-conducted seminars to obtain permits, no such seminars have ever been held. I recently introduced legislation which establishes a clear federal rule that allows airlines to decide for themselves whether to arm pilots, without interference from the FAA or other federal agencies.
No amount of law enforcement efforts or heightened airport security can guarantee that a terrorist will never again board an aircraft with a weapon. Terrorists can bribe airport personnel, impersonate police, or even get jobs working in airport security. They can work for the many private contractors that maintain, clean, fuel, and stock planes parked at the gate. They can become baggage handlers. Ultimately, pilots must be still be able to defend themselves against a weapon smuggled onto an aircraft.
Cockpit doors can be strengthened, but putting more weight in the nose of a plane may require expensive structural retrofitting, and the doors have to be opened for pilots to eat or use the bathroom. Heavy cockpit doors also cause pressurization problems between the cockpit and the main cabin. Emergencies could arise that require access to the cockpit, such as the illness or incapacitation of one or both pilots. So simply sealing off the front of the plane is not an easy remedy to the hijacking threat.
In the short term, of course, some federal action may be necessary. Armed sky marshals can serve to reassure the flying public while the airlines work to rebuild ridership. Military monitoring of the skies is needed to provide a rapid response if another hijacking were to occur. However, we must allow the private airlines to implement their own security measures to protect their crews, their passengers, their aircraft, and people on the ground. Arming pilots is a small but critical first step in making air travel safe.