Protecting the cockpit

Posted: Sep 11, 2002 12:00 AM
Flying has never been my favorite activity, and it's gotten a lot harder over the last year. I fly, on average, a couple of times a month. Barely a week after the September 11 attacks, I was back in an airplane flying across the country, and I haven't avoided taking a single flight since. But I'm always nervous the moment I step foot in the airport. For a while after the attacks, when airport security seemed intense, at least in the Washington, D.C., area, I felt a little better. All those fresh, young National Guardsmen and women with assault rifles patrolling the airport gave me some sense of safety. But they're mostly gone now, replaced by state police whose guns are a lot smaller and whose middle-aged girths give me less confidence that they could deter a group of tough young terrorists like those who killed 3,000 Americans last fall. Apparently, I'm not alone in these feelings. Last week, the U.S. Senate voted 87 to 6 to allow pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, a stunning political turnabout made possible because of a sea change in public opinion. The flying public wants to feel safe again, and guns -- in the right hands -- will make them feel safer. And women, more than men, want pilots armed; at least that's the result of a poll taken by the Winston Group for the Allied Pilots Association. The poll of 800 randomly selected registered voters across the nation showed 75 percent favored arming pilots, but slightly more women (76 percent compared with 73 percent of men) wanted guns in the cockpit. Married women with children were the most supportive of all, with 78 percent voicing approval. These figures no doubt explain why liberal California Sen. Barbara Boxer helped lead the charge for arming pilots. Boxer has always been an implacable foe of guns. She was one of the congressional leaders of the Million Mom March for gun control legislation in 2000 and has been an outspoken critic of the right for private citizens to bear arms. Yet, last week, she was one of the most impassioned proponents for arming one group of private citizens -- pilots. But if women and even liberal Democrats are eager to give guns to pilots, the Bush administration is still dragging its feet. Reluctantly, the administration has now said it could support a test program to arm a small number of pilots on a trial basis. But overall, the administration has been surprisingly slow to take measures to improve public confidence in airline safety. Security checks have become almost a joke. Lines are long and tempers short, but the sight of 70-year-old women being patted down at the baggage screening area gives no one a sense that screeners are likely to intercept potential hijackers. This week, when I flew from Dulles airport in Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, I waited several extra minutes while an obviously confused elderly man had to be hand-searched because he'd forgotten to take his keys out of his pocket and was struggling to get his shoes off so they could be run through the metal detector. On another recent trip, I watched a suspiciously agitated Middle Eastern man twice try to sneak through the crew screening area without proper identification. Yet only when I drew a nearby guard's attention to the man was he stopped for the same treatment I routinely receive on my many trips -- frisked, bags hand-searched, wands swept over his body. The secretary of transportation's politically correct pledge that there will be no ethnic profiling of airline passengers has led to ridiculous and potentially dangerous situations. Those from the same demographic group as the hijackers are ignored while little old ladies are subjected to humiliating searches. The Winston Group poll showed that growing numbers of Americans have decided to forgo airline travel altogether. Some 29 percent of those polled say they won't fly, with nearly a third of women saying they won't get on a plane. With the airline industry one of the most fragile components of our still struggling economy, the president and his administration must do something to restore travelers' confidence. A good first step would be for the Bush administration to enthusiastically endorse a program to arm pilots on a voluntary basis.