December 1, 2001
Airlines Play Key Role In Debate over Guns on Planes
by Joseph P. Tartaro
The public at large and gunowners in particular have been discussing the question of legally armed response to terrorist attacks on American airliners since Sept. 11. Everyone is aware of the case of Flight 93, in which resistance from disarmed passengers caused the plane to crash in Pennsylvania rather than on a Washington, DC, target.
Almost everyone is taking a new look at the idea that active resistance is better than the previously recommended passive acquiescence to hijacker demands which proved so costly in people on the ground as well as in the air on 9-11. But there is significant disagreement, and resistance, especially from airline management.
Passengers who think that their training and concealed carry licenses should qualify them to carry their handguns on planes will be waiting a long time for any change, particularly as the airlines continue to resist the arming and training of pilots.
Indeed, the main reason pilots have not been armed in recent years is not so much the government, but the airlines. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that have been in force in recent years would have allowed pilots to be armed provided the airline allowed it. And the airlines have not been allowing it, and are still resisting the ideaeven with the major pilots union in favor. (Believe it or not, some of the airlines are even queasy about the idea of armed sky-marshals.) Even Boeing, a major manufacturer of passenger aircraft, is getting into the act.
Every time US Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) meets with representatives of the pilots union, they urge her to support putting guns into the cockpit. But during a recent briefing by Boeing Co., company safety officials told her that arming pilots was a bad idea, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
Such contradictory views, increasingly heard among legislators, government regulators, industry officials and many of the nations commercial pilots, explain why the issue of providing flight crews with handguns has turned into one of the most complex and heated aviation security debates stemming from Septembers terrorist assaults. Despite a call from union officials to resolve the issue quickly, those arguments arent likely to be resolved anytime soon since both the House and Senate have approved comprehensive security bills that include language essentially leaving the decision up to individual carriers.
While Congress and the Bush Administration search for a compromise, leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association are working ferociously behind the scenes to promote, devise and get ready to swiftly launch training programs for hundreds of volunteer pilots.
Were not proposing to indiscriminately throw guns at pilots, says Stephen Luckey, a retired Boeing 747 captain for Northwest Airlines who is chairman of the unions national security committee. The nearly weeklong training seminars, featuring marksmanship and pointers in hand-to-hand combat, will focus on surgical applications of force . . . to put the bullet where it does the most good, according to Luckey. The plan is to use specially designed bullets capable of felling an attacker without puncturing the planes fuselage.
After a grassroots campaign by pro-gun pilots that persuaded union leaders to push the issue, members have given the government and the union a window of time to come up with the right answers, Luckey said. Without tangible progress, he adds, many pilots are threatening to stop flying unless they can protect themselves. Union membership is split on the issue.
Yet the 67,000-person unionwhich says it has the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) support and already has planned the curriculum down to the coffee breaksacknowledges that it doesnt know how its training programs would be funded or which agency would oversee the effort. An FBI spokesman said the agency hasnt taken a position on that issue yet.
Under the union plan, only pilots and a few other airline officials would have access to the guns, which would be locked in metal clamshell-shaped boxes. More complicated storage methods would be necessary overseas, including couriers to transport firearms to and from jetliners at foreign airports, perhaps using a second locked box.
For some observers, the debate shows how little faith pilots and passengers have in short-term security improvements such as stepped-up passenger screening or improved locks on cockpit doors. In light of recent, highly publicized breaches of airport security, the FAA has left the country with such an inadequate security system that handguns are the things were left to debate, asserts David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington consumer group.
United Stun Guns
First, United Airlines, Americas No. 2 air carrier, talked to its pilots union about the possibility of placing Taser stun guns in its cockpits, according to Denvers Rocky Mountain News. Then United announced on Nov. 15 that it would become the first major US airline to actually begin arming pilots with the Tasers, and would eventually put stun guns in the cockpit of every United plane.
Unlike other electronic stun guns, which must be placed directly against an attacker, Tasers can take down a hijacker from 21 feet away, said Steve Tuttle, director of government affairs for Taser International Inc.
Using a laser sight, the Taser shoots a pair of&Mac249;-inch darts trailing wires into the attacker, Tuttle said. A 5-second, 26-watt shot of electricity contracts the muscles and overwhelms the central nervous system, preventing any coordinated action, he said.
One international airline that does not want to be named is already adding Tasers, and Mesa Airlines, which operates in the Southwest and as a commuter line for several larger airlines, is seeking FAA permission to do so in the US, Tuttle said.
No one has explained, however, what happens if the Taser darts strike sensitive cockpit instruments.
Airline ID Proposal
But the airlines are not hesitant about making other security suggestions, if they dont involve resistance. On Nov. 7, the airline industry formally called for a massive screening system that would subject passengers to intensive background checks.
Under the Air Transport Association (ATA) proposal, all reservations would be checked against a new government database that would include arrest records, intelligence information, immigration files and financial data. This master database, constantly updated, would be used to identify individuals who would merit closer screening at the airport.
Clearly, the steps taken so far have done little to allay the publics concern amid highly publicized security lapses and government warnings of terrorist attacks, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Air traffic was off 25% through October despite deep fare reductions, and the annual American Automobile Association survey for Thanksgiving travel forecast a 27% decline.
Among the airline industry proposals was a new trusted traveler ID card, which would be issued to pre-screened passengers willing to undergo extensive personal background checks. These travelers would be sent to airport checkpoints with less-intensive screening, allowing them fewer delays.
The ideas are not new, but their endorsement by the ATA, representing 26 passenger and cargo airlines, puts them at the center of the debate over how the American aviation system can be made less vulnerable to terrorism.
Such proposals reflect a sentiment among some in government and transportation circles that airline travel should become less of a right, open to anyone who can afford a ticket, and more of a privilege, extended to those who can prove they are not a threat.
Any new aviation security system must dramatically change its current orientation from looking primarily at things to looking at people, said Carol Hallett, president of the ATA, during a news conference.
However, such proposals have been anathema to civil libertarians, who have succeeded in quashing them in the past. But the ATA endorsement and public horror over the Sept. 11 attacks have reinvigorated their proponents.
The database program could be similar to the one used in Israel, whose airports are considered the most secure in the world; the reservations database for El Al, the national airline, automatically checks passengers against Israeli intelligence records.
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