March 16, 2002
Transportation officials weighing arguments for arming pilots, crews
By TOBY ECKERT
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- Despite what looks like an uphill battle, pilots are pushing federal officials for permission to keep firearms in airplane cockpits as a ""last line of defense'' against hijackers.
Meanwhile, unions representing flight attendants want their members to be armed with ""less than lethal'' weapons like stun guns. Airlines adamantly oppose the pilots' initiative, saying firearms risk damage to planes and harm to passengers, but some are open to the idea of stun guns.
In fact, United Airlines recently purchased 1,300 Taser stun guns in hopes of a green light from federal officials.
The debate illustrates the concerns that remain about aviation safety despite efforts to raise security at airports and aboard planes to unprecedented levels since the devastating Sept. 11 hijackings.
""With proper training and the right weapons, it's simply another way to restore the public's confidence in the safety of flying,'' said Michael Dyment, an aviation expert at Andersen, the consulting and accounting firm. ""We could probably add another percentage point to GDP (gross domestic product) just getting the public flying again.''
Earlier this month, the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union, formally asked the Department of Transportation to allow firearms in the cockpit on a voluntary basis. Pilots would have to be deputized, submit to background checks and undergo firearms training equivalent to that given to federal law enforcement officers.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, also backs the move.
The unions argue that cockpits remain vulnerable to hijackers despite steps taken by airlines to reinforce cockpit doors.
""A large majority of airline pilots and the American public views firearms in the cockpit as a necessary deterrent to terrorism, recognizing that it is but one in a myriad of security measures that myst be implemented,'' Air Line Pilots Association President Duane Woerth said.
""And as long as cockpit doors have to be opened for pilots to gain access to meal service and lavatories, there is a risk that a terrorist can slip through security and get into the cockpit,'' he said.
The sweeping new aviation security law that took effect late last year authorizes pilots to carry firearms, but only if the DOT's security chief approves. Individual air carriers must also agree.
John Magaw, the undersecretary of transportation for security, has not publicly taken a position on the issue. The Transportation Security Administration, which Magaw heads, is expected to make a recommendation soon.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has voiced strong opposition to arming pilots with lethal weapons. He expressed support for giving pilots, but not other flight crew members, stun guns.
The pilots argue that stun guns are not a reliable alternative to firearms.
""The small cockpit environment and the unreliability of stun guns make their use inappropriate,'' Woerth said.
Mineta's view mirror those of major airlines.
""Firearms pose a significant threat to the integrity of the hull, which could result in decompression and associated dangers. Additionally, there is the possibility of unintended injury to passengers and crewmembers,'' United officials said in comments filed with the Transportation Department.
But the pilots unions and some aviation experts say such concerns are overblown, especially if a plane is in danger of being hijacked for a suicide attack in which everyone aboard would be killed.
""If you're going to trust a man or a woman with a $100 million plane and 400 lives, if that person wants to carry a snub-nosed .38, fine,'' said aviation consultant Michael Boyd.
Woerth has spoken in favor of the use of ""frangible'' bullets that disintegrate when they hit hard objects, reducing the chance they would penetrate the body of an airplane.
Flight attendants feel overlooked in the debate. They have expressed a desire to make stun guns or some other non-lethal weapon available to air crews.
""We've taken lots of steps to protect the cockpit. It's just common sense that we can't leave passengers and flight attendants in the back of the plane without any defense capabilities,'' said Dawn Deeks, spokesperson for the Association of Flight attendants, a union.
As for guns in the cockpit, Deeks said, ""It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to introduce a lethal weapon into an environment we're trying to secure.''
Some airlines are completely opposed to allowing pilots or crews to possess any type of weapon.
""Southwest believes that the potential risks to passengers and flight crews from the introduction of weapons, lethal or otherwise, into the aircraft environment far outweigh any speculative benefits of such weapons,'' the airline said in a DOT filing.