In a recent interview, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida stated: “The need for guns in the cockpit is just nearly not [sic] as acute as it once was. There are all kind [sic] of screening systems, there is now the reinforced cockpit door, there are air marshals, we now have a lots of checks and balances.” Hearing this, some might ask, “Do airline pilots still need to be armed?” The answer is, “Absolutely — now more than ever.”
Consider this: Arming pilots is not a new idea. In fact, airline pilots flew armed in large numbers from the dawn of commercial aviation to 1987 with no record of incident. When the federal government disarmed pilots in 1987, many pilots predicted cockpit takeover attempts — including the late Captain Victor Saracini, who, in horrible irony, was the captain of United flight 175 on September 11, 2001 when his Boeing 767 was hijacked and crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It was the disarming of pilots in 1987 that inevitably led to the September 11 cockpit takeovers.
When the first pilots were armed in April 2003, all airliners had been retrofitted with the reinforced cockpit door, but few were willing to bet the lives of hundreds (or thousands) of people on the hope that the door would withstand a sustained attack from killers who had been trained to quickly breach it. Terrorists know what security experts have long known: There is no such thing as an impenetrable door. The reinforced cockpit door will slow terrorists from breaking into the cockpit, but it is foolish to blithely assume that it will stop them.
The Federal Air Marshals Service is an important layer of security, but the agency has never been able to cover more than a fraction of domestic flights. Armed pilots protect many times the number of flights that the agency does at 1/25th of the cost per flight. If marshals happen to be on board a flight that is attacked by terrorists, and they are able to control the situation from the cabin, all the better. The guns carried by pilots will never be a factor. However, if the marshals are not able to stop the attack (or are not on board the airplane) and the killers breach the cockpit door to find defenseless pilots, everyone on board — and possibly thousands on the ground — will soon be dead.
All armed pilots are trained and deputized federal law enforcement officers. Prior to inception of the armed pilot program, there were reckless predictions of accidental shootings and safety degradations. The facts illustrate the absurdity of these claims. The number of pilots who have stepped forward to attend training (at their own time and expense) is huge. Airline pilots have been (re)armed for nearly five years now and the program has a safety record that is superior to any law enforcement agency in the country.
Mr. Nelson tells us that we don’t need armed pilots because airport security screening now provides a meaningful layer of protection. Anyone who has been through passenger screening in recent years might wonder what planet the senator is talking about. Recent internal Transportation Security Administration testing (TSA) has shown that screeners missed 60 percent to 75 percent of the prohibited items. The TSA screening model is based upon the theory that we can cleanse the airport of small things that are potentially dangerous. This has led us to the inane circumstance where we are limiting the size of toothpaste tubes but ignoring potentially dangerous people. An effective program that looks for dangerous people by identifying tell-tale, involuntary behavior patterns should be the foundation of screening, but due to politically correct thinking, the TSA may never implement an effective system.
Some have argued, “The threat we face is now is explosives smuggled on airliners and armed pilots can’t stop a bomb.” True enough (although effective screening can). But if terrorist groups are now looking toward explosives as a weapon of choice, is this not evidence that the armed pilot program is working? If we disarm pilots, the specter of September 11-style hijackings may well resurface.
It is human nature to become complacent as the years pass since September 11, but complacency is a luxury airline pilots cannot afford. Arming airline pilots is safe, fundamentally important, and highly cost-effective. How many government programs can make that claim? The U.S. military stands ready to destroy an unarmed airliner that has been commandeered, killing everyone board. I ask this question of those who have forgotten the lessons of September 11: How can you support the use of military force to kill innocent people on an airliner while at the same time denying them the last-resort, final line of defense that might have saved their lives by permitting their pilots to be armed?
Capt. Tracy Price, an airline pilot for more than 20 years, is a vice president of the Passenger Cargo Security Group.