Al-Qaida Won't Forget Our Security Issues

Its been almost twenty-three months since 9/11 and yet news headlines last week warned "Al Qaeda May Be Planning More Hijack Attacks."

Targets are reportedly the American East Coast, Europe or Australia this summer.

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.

Consider the following:

  • Pilot unions report that although one-quarter of the flights out of Reagan National have air marshals, the level is close to 1% for Baltimore-Washington and Dulles International Airports flights and essentially zero over most of the rest of the country. 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, 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.

Even these programs have proven to be very costly. Last week a Federal Air Marshal Service memo indicated that expenditures were being cut back, though that was quickly rescinded. Cuts are also being made in airport screeners.

Yet, with so few marshals and the ineffectiveness of screeners, such cuts do not pose the real concern.

What is more disappointing is that despite Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s public support on Sunday for arming pilots as a last line of defense (indeed it was the first policy he mentioned), the Bush Administration has fought the program at every turn.

Almost two years have passed since the first attacks and two laws have passed overwhelmingly by congress to start training pilots, but only 80 out of over 100,000 commercial passenger pilots are licensed to carry guns.

Following what seemed like a successful first class of pilots, the Transportation Security Administration (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.

“Hostile to Pilots”

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. Some questions even appear designed to purposefully disqualify pilot applicants.

For example, pilots are asked whether they have ever "experienced a loss of pay while working as a sworn [law enforcement officer]." This is not an uncommon occurrence because some pilots hold second jobs as law enforcement officers, and changes in airline schedules often prevent them from working as officers.

Despite all the concern about hypothetical risks, arming pilots is not some new experiment.

More than 70% 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.

Few people realize that until the 1960s, American commercial passenger pilots on any flight carrying U.S. mail were required to carry handguns; they were allowed to do so until 1987.

Because pilots only have to defend one narrow entry point, they have a much easier job than an air marshal located in a crowded cabin.

The Bush administration can hardly claim confidence that it’s screening, reinforced doors and air marshals are enough.

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