Let Our Pilots Be Armed

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It has been almost two years since 9/11 and yet recent news headlines warn “Al Qaeda May Be Planning More Hijack Attacks.” Unfortunately, our air-travel system is still very vulnerable to hijacking, and quick measures need to be taken. Another successful attack would make it very difficult to again restore travelers’ faith in security.

Last week, pilots from around the country held rallies in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C. to draw attention to their concerns. Consider the following:

Pilots claim that while at least one third of flights out of Washington’s Reagan National are covered with air marshals, the rest of the country is being ignored. Only a small fraction of flights to Europe are being covered and then only one day a week.

The newest generation of reinforced cockpit doors was put in place in April, but few experts have much faith in their effectiveness. Last summer, on a bet, a cleaning crew rammed a drink cart into one of the new doors on a United Airlines plane. The door reportedly broke off its hinges.

No tests of airport screening have been made public since the government took over screening last fall, but, in private meetings that I have attended, the Transportation Security Administration acknowledges there is a wide range of undetectable lethal weapons.

For example, without full-body searches there is no way to detect ceramic or plastic knives that are taped to an inside thigh. People who have flown can readily understand that while the checks are troublesome, they are simply not patted down all over their body. Unless you are going to do full-body searches on people, determined terrorists are going to be able to get weapons on planes no matter how carefully screeners monitor x-ray machines and metal detectors.

THE COSTS

Despite the gaps, these three programs have proven to be very costly. Potential cuts in airport screeners have generated a great deal of concern. Mentions of possible financial problems involving the marshals program have also been in the news.

Yet, with the ineffectiveness of screeners and so few marshals, such cuts do not pose the real threat. In terms of cost effectiveness it is hard to think of a policy that produces the ratio of benefits to costs that arming pilots has. For example, the only real financial cost to the government for pilots involves a one-week training class. Even then pilots are training on their own time. There are none of the salaries required for marshals or screeners once the training is completed.

Only $8 million of the $5 billion available to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for airline security is being spent on arming pilots. A five-fold increase in expenditures on arming pilots would reduce other expenditures by only about one percent.

UNDERMINING THE PROGRAM

Unfortunately, despite Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently voicing public support for arming pilots, the TSA has fought the program at every turn. After two years since the first attacks and two laws passed overwhelmingly by Congress to start training pilots, only about 200 out of over 100,000 commercial passenger pilots are licensed to carry guns.

Following what seemed like a successful first class of pilots this spring, the TSA fired the head of the firearms training academy, Willie Ellison, for “unacceptable performance and conduct.”

Ellison, who won the praise of the students, was reprimanded for holding a graduation dinner for the first graduation class and giving them baseball caps with the program logo.

The training facility was closed down and relocated immediately after the first class, prompting Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the Aviation Subcommittee, to complain that the closing appeared to be “just another attempt to disrupt the program.”

On top of all the delays, the administration has done what it can to discourage pilots from even applying for the armed-pilot program.

The intrusive application form pilots are required to fill out warns them that the information obtained by the Transportation Security Administration is “not limited to [the pilot's] academic, residential, achievement, performance, attendance, disciplinary, employment history, criminal history record information, and financial and credit information.”

The information can be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration and used to revoke a pilot’s commercial license. As one pilot told me, “The Transportation Security Administration is viewed as hostile to pilots, and pilots are afraid that if they are not viewed as competent for the [armed-pilots] program, they may be viewed as not competent to continue being pilots.”

The screening and psychological testing required of the pilots are also much more extensive and intrusive than that required for the vast majority of air marshals who are currently on duty. Some questions even appear designed to purposefully disqualify pilot applicants.

About half the pilots applying for the program were rejected in the initial screening process. No explanations for those rejections have been provided, making the entire system unaccountable. In the last week or so, the TSA apparently has come to reconsider some of those rejections and called pilots to tell them that the decisions had been made too quickly. But with all the secrecy surrounding the process it is impossible to evaluate whether those who continue to be rejected deserve to be. It is hard to think of any reason why the applicant can’t be told even in even the most general way the basis for rejections. The initial high rates of rejection have certainly put a chill on applications.

HARDLY EXPERIMENTAL

Despite all the concern about hypothetical risks, arming pilots is not some new experiment. About 70 percent of the pilots at major American airlines have military backgrounds, and military pilots flying outside the U.S. are required to carry handguns with them whenever they flew military planes.

Until the early 1960s, American commercial passenger pilots on any flight carrying U.S. mail were required to carry handguns. The requirement started at the beginning of commercial aviation to insure that pilots could defend the mail if their plane were to ever crash. In contrast to the current program, there were no training or screening requirements. Indeed, pilots were still allowed to carry guns until as recently as 1987. There are no records that any of these pilots (either military or commercial) carrying guns have ever caused any significant problems.

TYPICAL OBJECTIONS

There are many concerns that have been raised about arming pilots or letting them carry guns, but armed pilots actually have a much easier job than air marshals. An armed marshal in a crowded cabin can be attacked from any direction; he must be able to quickly distinguish innocent civilians from terrorists. An armed pilot only needs to concern himself with the people trying to force their way into the cockpit. It is also much easier to defend a position such as the cockpit, as a pilot would, than to have to pursue the terrorist and physically subdue them, as a marshal would. The terrorists can only enter the cockpit through one narrow entrance, and armed pilots have time to prepare themselves as hijackers try to penetrate the strengthened cockpit doors.

Pilots must also fly the airplane, but, with two pilots, one pilot would continue flying the plane while the other defended the entrance. In any case, if terrorists are in the cockpit, concentrating on flying will not be an option.

An oft-repeated concern during the debate over arming pilots is that hijackers will take the guns from them, since “21 percent of [police] officers killed with a handgun were shot by their own service weapon.” (Similar concerns are frequently raised when discussing civilians using guns for their personal protection.) But the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report paints a quite different picture. In 2000, 47 police officers were killed with a gun, out of which 33 cases involved a handgun, and only one of these firearm deaths involves the police officer’s gun. It is really not that easy to grab an officer’s gun and shoot him. Assaults on police are not that rare, but only in a miniscule fraction of assaults on officers do officers end up losing control and being shot with their own gun. Statistics from 1996 to 2000 show that only eight thousandths of one percent of assaults on police resulted in them being killed with their own weapon.

The risk to pilots would probably be even smaller. Unlike police who have to come into physical contact with criminals while arresting them, pilots will use guns to keep attackers as far away as possible.

Unable to accept pilots carrying guns, the administration continues to float suggestions for Tasers (stun guns) instead of guns, ignoring their limitations. Not only are there well-known cases such as Rodney King who “fought off Tasers” twice, but thick clothing can also foil their effectiveness. The New York City police department reports that: “Even Taser guns — which the department uses to administer electric shocks to people — fail about a third of the time.” Because of these problems, even the Taser manufacturer recommends lethal weapons as a back up. Use against terrorists would be even less reliable since terrorists would prepare in advance to wear clothing or take other precautions to protect themselves from stun guns.

The fears of having guns on planes are exaggerated. As Ron Hinderberger, director of aviation safety at Boeing, noted in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives:

Boeing commercial service history contains cases where guns were fired on board in service airplanes, all of which landed safely. Commercial airplane structure is designed with sufficient strength, redundancy, and damage tolerance that a single or even multiple handgun holes would not result in loss of an aircraft. A bullet hole in the fuselage skin would have little effect on cabin pressurization. Aircraft are designed to withstand much larger impacts whether intentional or unintentional. For instance, on 14 occasions Boeing commercial airplanes have survived, and landed, after an in flight bomb blast.

SKY MILES YET

The Bush administration can hardly claim confidence that its screening, reinforced doors and air marshals are enough. A successful attack will make it very difficult for the government to restore travelers’ confidence for years. The damage to the airline industry would be even greater than after the first attack.

Protecting people should be as important as protecting the mail once was.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the newly released The Bias Against Guns, which examines the evidence on multiple victim killings.

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