WASHINGTON — We are fast approaching the third anniversary of
September 11, but commercial airline cockpits are hardly any more
secure. Air marshals are proving wonderfully ineffective and the
plan to arm pilots has not fared so well. Sen. Jim Bunning and
Barbara Boxer — Barbara Boxer! — have introduced a bill to curb
the Transportation Security Administration’s stringent requirements
that have failed to arm more than two percent of the country’s
commercial airline pilots.
“TSA has slow-walked the program from day one,” said Sen. Boxer.
“[They are] denying thousands of pilots their right to be trained
in this program and denying the American people the additional
security they deserve.”
TSA is not alone in its resentment of the Federal Flight Deck
Officers Program (FFDO). Thomas Quinn, head of the Federal Air
Marshal Service (FAMS), wrote a memo to an assistant secretary at
the Department of Homeland Security, urging the department to
defeat the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvement
The memo is arguably an improper lobbying effort from a tenured
career employee, but, more troubling, it has made public the Air
Marshals’ opposition to arming pilots. Given that FAMS and FFDO are
designed for basically the same purpose — to protect passengers
and to save us from another hijacking disaster — shouldn’t the
programs at least try to get along?
THIS FALL, THE FEDERAL government will reduce the air marshal staff
by nine percent. The estimated 4,000 on duty now cover only small
fraction of flights. Strengthening the armed pilots program — a
logical, cost-effective substitute — should help to offset the
security threat of fewer air marshals
In fact, it might do the marshals one better. Understaffed as it
is, the air marshal program is still costly at $673 million
annually. It is also badly managed. A General Accounting Office
study of the program from 2001 to 2003 shows that marshals’ covers
were blown an average of once a week, and it really is a wonder
that it’s been that infrequent.
In the event of another hijacking attempt, the smart terrorist
will gun for the pair of sharply dressed and freshly shaven
passengers first; especially if they were observed boarding the
flight through “exit” lanes, as marshals are instructed to do. The
awkward credential cases marshals present to the ticket counter are
another obvious tip-off. Until recently, marshals also needed to
sign in at screening checkpoints.
Of course, arming pilots would avoid these problems. There are
at least two pilots onboard every flight. Yet TSA has purposefully
created a number of roadblocks, discouraging enrollment in the
program and even preventing those that do from passing.
On their own time — and dollar — pilots must arrange a trip to
the training facility remotely located in New Mexico. There they
undergo intense psychological tests. Many pilots have been rejected
from the program with no explanations given. For that reason,
others hesitate to enroll, worried that failing the program will
make them appear less competent to their employers. By way of
contrast, Sky Marshal training has been criticized as lenient.
Standards were relaxed in order to get numbers up and accommodate
the high turnover rate.
HERE’S THE THING: Passengers already place our lives at the hands
of commercial pilots. We can trust them thanks to the rigorous
requirements imposed by FAA in its license certification. Twice a
year pilots are subject to a battery of medical and psychological
tests. FAA doctors are equally probing in their evaluations, but
they don’t have TSA’s anti-gun bias. Pilots are also trained in
crisis management. Just as they are prepared to act quickly in an
emergency situation like an onboard fire, they are equally capable
of defending the cockpit while directing the plane.
Right now, a hijacker could sneak though airport screening and
easily spot an air marshal, in the rare and random event one is
onboard his flight. A would-be hijacker would be less likely to
plan an attack if the odds are greater that his pilot is armed
For his part of the most improbable political pairing since Bono
and Paul O’Neill, Sen. Bunning has said, “Tens of thousands of
armed pilots are a real defense and deterrent. A few thousand are
not.” He’s right. The really shocking thing, over two years after
September 11, is that this defense is not yet in place.