Pilot to Passengers: "I'm unarmed"

Posted: Sep 07, 2003 12:00 AM

Suppose terrorists sneak aboard your flight. Perhaps they have failed to smuggle (conventional, metallic) weapons on board. What they do have are their intentions, their training, and their willingness to die.

The flight attendants solicit your attention, and explain what to do in the event of an emergency. They demonstrate the use of the oxygen masks and the flotation devices. There's a short film. Then you hear from one of the pilots.

"Welcome aboard. This is Joe, your flight captain. We're cruising at such-and-such thousand feet, at such-and-such miles per hour. The skies are clear and we expect smooth sailing. And oh, by the way--I'm unarmed. And the co-pilot is unarmed. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight."

No sane pilot would announce that the residents of the cockpit are easy pickings. But if such an in-flight admission were indeed made on an American jumbo jet in the America of September 11, 2003, would any stray terrorists among the passengers learn anything they don't already know?

Here's the problem. Two years after the 911 attacks--almost a year after Congress authorized a broad program to arm commercials pilots--the Transportation Security Administration is dragging its feet, making it almost impossible for pilots to defend themselves against lethal force with lethal force of their own. The TSA prefers air marshals to handle the last-line-of-defense type thing. Which is fine, so long as the bad guys pick a plane with an air marshal, and the air marshal succeeds in overpowering the bad guys when the bad guys make their move.

Back when Congress was debating whether pilots should or should not be in a position to shoot at terrorists who breach the cockpit, some persons wondered whether pilots could be trusted with so dangerous an object as a gun. Perhaps instead of steering the plane the pilots would accidentally shoot up the instrument panel or something.

At the time, Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young observed that "armed F-16s are prepared to shoot down any commercial jet that is hijacked by terrorists.... [W]e must allow trained and qualified pilots to serve as the last line of defense against such a potential disaster."

Even Senator Barbara Boxer, normally in favor of victim disarmament, stressed the obvious. She asked us to imagine, should another 911-style attack occur, "how the survivors of all those passengers and crew will feel if we failed to allow pilots to have guns to defend the plane and an American flight was brought down by the American military."

Pilots and passengers won the congressional battle over authorizing pilot self-defense. But the agency charged with the implementation isn't implementing. The TSA is actively deterring pilots from applying for arms training. In pursuit of its obstructionist agenda, TSA is:

  • Allocating, reluctantly, only miniscule funds to the urgent task of training pilots. The agency is much more worried about training and mis-training the tens of thousands of airport security personnel charged with patting down grandmothers and ten-year-olds.

  • Arbitrarily relocating class sites to make life harder for instructors now training pilots.  "No sooner had the first class of armed pilots graduated from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia," report Dave Kopel and David Petteys, "than the TSA announced the program would be relocated to Artesia, New Mexico. Experienced instructors in Georgia have the option of quitting their jobs, or moving their families to a remote town which is 186 miles by car from Lubbock, Texas, the nearest major city."

  • Subjecting applicants to a seemingly endless barrage of checks and tests. As Captain Denny Breslin, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, has pointed out: "The TSA has forced the [Federal Flight Deck Officer Program] to conform to its own bureaucratic image of a weak, perfunctory program in reluctant compliance with a law they did not like in the first place. [T]he TSA has TSA has made the program so onerous for pilots with ludicrous levels of background and psychological testing that it is obvious they are trying to intentionally discourage participation."

So today, two years after 911, less than 150 pilots are qualified to bear arms in the cockpit. It's as if the terrorists have found a way to infiltrate the Transportation Security Administration.

Thousands of pilots could be trained in short order if the agency simply farmed out the job to private training academies. But that's too easy and sensible for government work.

There are over 66,000 members of the Air Pilots Association. On any particular day there may be anywhere from 4,500 to 7,500 commercial planes in the air at any one moment. Basically, we're telling the terrorists: "Don't worry. The chances are vanishingly low that either pilot on the flight you pick is going to be armed."

No in-flight announcement needed.