- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2001

No excuse can justify the titanic failure of our security procedures, systems and organizations on Sept. 11, from the highest levels of government to the minimum-wage personnel screening airline passengers at the gate.

But now that the unthinkable has happened, Americans deserve common-sense measures in response. In most cases, the government is responding appropriately. Regrettably, in the case of air travel security, it is not.

The airlines have been hit harder than any other industry, with half a million jobs lost nationwide in travel and hospitality businesses.

According to The Washington Times of last Wednesday, the shutdown of Reagan National Airport is costing the Washington region $5.5 million a day. Thousands of employees are laid off, their families' livelihoods in doubt.

The response of the federal government on airline security has ranged from the ineffectual to the absurd. The feds have tightened the gate-check system, an illusion that fools nobody, and has had little effect, according to the latest news reports of dangerous items passing through the screens.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has banned all sharp objects, even plastic knives. And last Thursday's New York Times discusses the Air Force command structure and plans to shoot down errant airliners without a presidential OK.

The conceptual flaw in all these measures is that they overlook the principal area of concern the flight crew and the cockpit. If you can secure the cockpit from invasion, you can defend the airplane from seizure.

Then it doesn't matter which airport it uses, or whether the passengers have pocketknives and nail clippers. And to secure the cockpit, the flight deck bulkhead and door must be armored and the pilots armed. There simply is no other reliable option.

President Bush wants more air marshals, and indeed, we need them. But they are not the solution. The FAA admits it will take up to 18 months to recruit, train and qualify 5,000 air marshals. After the catastrophe, airlines are flying about 30,000 flight "segments" per day. Assuming one air marshal per flight, that will leave 25,000 flights unprotected.

Moreover, it will be possible to eliminate the air marshal. Though he is armed, he is still exposed and vulnerable in the passenger cabin. Two or three hijackers could make their move, forcing the air marshal to reveal himself. Other hijackers waiting in ambush could take him down when he does. Then the terrorist team would have the air marshal's own weapon, making the flight crew more vulnerable than ever, unless they have the means to defend the cockpit.

People are not stupid. Every time an airliner takes off, the passengers know they are entrusting their lives to the pilots of a huge, fuel-laden airplane now a potential guided missile. And yet the pilots can't be trusted with firearms to preserve their own lives as well as the lives of their passengers? The president has promised "confidence-boosting measures to persuade Americans it is safe to fly, but he thinks there are better options to increase flight security than arming pilots. Are passengers supposed to feel safer knowing the flight crew is unarmed, but that the Air Force can shoot them down if their plane strays from its planned flight path?

The latest polls show massive public support for arming the flight crew. An overwhelming majority of pilots of "121 carriers" the big jets agrees.

Testifying last Tuesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Capt. Duane Woerth of the Airline Pilots Association endorsed this necessary step. Pilots know better than anyone that all is lost if cockpit integrity is lost.

This proposal doesn't ask the flight crew to fight running gun battles in the passenger cabin. It simply enables them to defend the flight deck long enough to get the aircraft and the passengers safely on the ground. But they need firearms, not the nonlethal weapons some have proposed.

There's an old saying among veterans of close-quarter battle: "Never bring a knife to a gunfight." The same can be said of tasers and pepper spray. Besides, the danger of discharging firearms in crowded airliners can be greatly reduced by using new types of frangible or fragmenting ammunition. The latest technological breakthrough, for example, is Blended Metal Technology.

Unlike conventional ammunition, this round will instantly kill or incapacitate a hijacker, fragmenting dynamically without passing through him to injure passengers or endanger the aircraft.

By turning a jetliner into a weapon instead of a target to be seized, terrorists have launched a revolution in unconventional warfare. On Sept. 11, we saw something entirely new and unexpected, a phenomenon sometimes called a "paradigm shift." The terrorists showed extraordinary imagination and ingenuity, and only a comparable shift in defensive measures will be appropriate.

Superficial change at the margin will not suffice. It might satisfy the FAA and NTSB bureaucrats mired in status quo thinking, or the antigun activists who oppose firearms in any circumstances; but it won't protect passenger planes or the hundreds of large cargo jets that fly daily, and are overlooked by the other proposals for improved security.

Congress is considering a massive financial bailout for the airlines. But these billions will be wasted unless people return en masse to the airways.

Delta Airlines President Leo Mullen, announcing last Wednesday's major layoff, acknowledged that only a return to high passenger loads will restore the health of commercial carriers. But bringing sufficient passengers back with confidence to commercial air travel is going to require more than air marshals or a risible ban on sharp objects. They will return only when they know their flight is safe protected in the last ditch by the flight crews themselves.

Congress must pass legislation authorizing flight crews to go aloft with firearms, both to protect passengers and to rescue this essential industry.

Enabling pilots to defend the flight deck is no panacea for terrorism, but it does satisfy a major security requirement that no other method will.

Simply tinkering with demonstrably failed systems and procedures is a prescription for more terrorist disasters, and an economic disaster as well.

Thomas Moore, formerly on the professional staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a consultant to defense and firearms industries.

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