20,000 Pilots Petition Hill to Allow Guns in Cockpit
More than 20,000 airline pilots signed a petition and sent it to lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday, demanding that they be allowed to carry guns in the cockpit to protect themselves from hijackers.
Responding angrily, the union for flight attendants declared that it would fight the proposal unless the pilots agreed to use their guns not only to defend themselves, but also to ensure the safety of passengers and crew throughout the airplane.
The exchange marked the latest and most pointed skirmish in an unresolved legislative and security policy debate about whether weapons should be permitted in airplane cockpits, and if so, how they should be used to defend against hijackers.
The issue has been simmering since last fall, when a handful of pilots first raised the idea after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings. Since then, the idea has gathered momentum among pilots, producing legislative proposals, including bills by Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, and Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.).
As pilots moved closer to their goal of obtaining the needed legislation, they galvanized flight attendants who feel they are being ignored in an approach that focuses on pilots. The Association of Flight Attendants has proposed that attendants be given some kind of nonlethal weapon, such as a stun gun, to control unruly passengers. Pilots are opposed to stun guns on airplanes unless they can have lethal weapons.
At a minimum, flight attendants want any weapons proposal to take account of their needs. They worry about a scenario in which they are trapped in the cabin with hijackers while the pilots are behind locked doors with their guns.
"We're against the pilots having guns until we know that they're going to come out of the cockpit, into the cabin, to defend us and the passengers," said Jeff Zack, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants. "If there are no tools or training for flight attendants to protect themselves and passengers, what we end up with is planes getting to their destination with a bunch of dead people in the back."
In the airport security bill passed in November, Congress said the new Transportation Security Administration should decide whether to arm pilots and flight attendants with guns, stun guns or some other kind of nonlethal weapon.
John W. Magaw, head of the TSA, said earlier this week he had discussed the issue with Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, to whom he reports, but that no decision had been made.
A TSA official said a decision has been held up by legal and policy deliberations as the staff evaluates the 10,000 comments it has received from pilots, law enforcement officers and concerned travelers.
Mineta has said on several occasions that he personally opposes the idea of arming pilots, but he is open to the idea of stun guns. A TSA official said a decision would be announced next week.
In recent months, crews and travelers have had had to subdue troublesome passengers on several occasions. In February, a passenger managed to partially break through a fortified cockpit door on a United Airlines flight to Buenos Aires.
The Association of Flight Attendants months ago asked that the TSA's Air Marshal Program assist it in developing a training program that would include the use of nonlethal weapons. "It's taking them a long time," said Zack.
Pilots have lobbied most aggressively for weapons, saying guns would serve as a major deterrent to hijackers.
Capt. Stephen Luckey, chairman of the National Flight Safety Committee with the Air Line Pilots Association, yesterday told members of the House Aviation subcommittee that pilots assume, based on what they hear from the government, that another attack is possible and that all aircraft must be "viewed as potential human-guided missiles if they fall into the hands of a suicidal terrorist."
Luckey said pilots also assume that any hijacker would be armed with something besides box cutters, and thus locked cabin doors may not provide enough protection.
"I can tell you without equivocation that many pilots are willing and prepared to assume the responsibility for training and carrying a weapon," he said.
Some opponents of guns in airplanes have warned that if a bullet were to hit the side of the cabin, it might bring the plane down.
Ronald J. Hinderberger, Boeing Co.'s director of aviation safety, testified that a single bullet hole "would have little effect on cabin pressure." But Hinderberger added that there is a "remote possibility" a gunshot could cause a fire, explosion, engine failure or loss of critical systems on planes. He urged further assessment of the risks, as they vary by aircraft model.
Many members of the subcommittee agreed that more needs to be done to beef up security on airplanes.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he has seen security lapses. On a recent flight out of Washington, he observed that fortified cockpit doors are not always kept closed. DeFazio said a pilot opened the cockpit door when he had to use the lavatory. A flight attendant pushed the food cart in front of the door and stood "menacingly" in front of it until the pilot returned.
"That's not great security," DeFazio said.
United Airlines earlier this year announced it would begin training its pilots to use Tasers, stun guns that that can incapacitate a person with an electrical charge. Capt. Henry P. Krakowski, vice president of safety, security and quality assurance at United, told lawmakers that a Taser would have more effectively stopped the Buenos Aires passenger who tried to break into the cockpit.
The Taser "would have immediately immobilized the attacker without fatally endangering others who were trying to help," Krakowski said.
But pilots unions have questioned the effectiveness of stun guns, particularly the Taser, saying they cannot be used against multiple hijackers and could harm the plane's electrical system.
"Tasers are demonstrably unreliable," said Capt. Phillip Beall, an officer with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 12,000 American Airlines pilots. "On their own, Tasers should not be used unless backed up by lethal force.
Although a number of House members spoke in favor of arming pilots, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, opposed the effort.
Oberstar said arming pilots would give "new meaning to the flying shotgun in the days of the Wild West." Oberstar called the bill "impatient" because it would distract the TSA from the larger tasks ahead, such as using machines to screen all checked luggage for explosives by year's end.
Another Democrat, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, said a gun in the cockpit could harm innocent bystanders. "We know guns in the homes are more likely to be used for killing relatives and for suicide," she said. "We have to consider guns in the cockpit might be used for more than the purpose intended."