Special Report

Air Marshal Law

Even Barbara Boxer wants her pilots to be armed. Air marshals and the TSA have other ideas.

By 6.10.04

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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 bill.

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.

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