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Protect us from terrorists not pilots

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted May 17, 2004

There has been no repeat of the September 11 hijackings in the United States...yet.

If the unpleasant thought of hijacking becomes reality, the sad fact is that the hijackers might very well succeed again despite the fact that Congress passed legislation in 2002 requiring the newly formed Transportation Security Administration to implement a program to arm pilots.

"The armed pilot is the first line of deterrence, and the last line of defense against terrorist attacks on airliners in flight," explains Captain David Mackett, the president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

Mackett explains that only a small percentage of flights are covered by Federal Air Marshals and expanding the FAM program to cover all commercial flights would be very costly to taxpayers.

The airport screeners, the CAPPS program, simply cannot be trusted to do the job. "Airport security is like a sieve," says Mackett, a Boeing 737 captain, ticking off incidents such as the one in the fall of 2003 in which Nathaniel Heatwole, a college student, was able to smuggle box cutters onto commercial planes, and even e-mailed the TSA to point out the gaping hole in their air security, only to have his messages ignored until some of the items he'd brought aboard were found.

Arming pilots makes sense, not just from the standpoint of cost-efficiency. The pilot is the commander of his craft in the same way a passenger liner's captain exercises authority over his ship. Each and every day, commercial passenger and cargo airline pilots demonstrate the sound judgment and sense of responsibility required to be licensed to fly expensive, technically complicated airliners. They take their responsibilities seriously. Pilots, in fact, have to undergo extensive psychological testing in order to fly commercially, and many have previously served their country by flying military planes.

"Very few professions are as well-trained and closely observed and watched as airline pilots," notes Mackett, detailing how the FAA, the airlines, the air traffic controllers, and the fellow pilots all closely watch and evaluate pilots who have spent years preparing for their jobs.

However, the TSA has refused to acknowledge that fact. Two years later, the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program has been effectively stalled thanks to TSA's recalcitrant bureaucrats who have thrown up a variety of regulations and restrictions that are overly burdensome. The TSA and other bureaucratic agencies have made it clear through their statements and actions that it is their belief the public needs protection from the pilots
who fly them to their destination safe and sound, not from hijackers.

The TSA requires redundant psychological testing of pilots who demonstrate their sound judgment by flying commercial planes day-in, day-out and who have taken similar tests to obtain their pilot wings. Then the TSA puts its own unique interpretation on the results. Most people would be thankful for an armed pilot who pulls out his weapon to take down a gunman in an airport. Not so with the TSA. They have used this as a question to disqualify pilots from participating in the FFDO program-the FFDO's jurisdiction extends only to the aircraft. It makes you wonder about the viewpoint of the TSA's officials who sanctioned that question. Do they prefer that the criminal be able to shoot at will? Maybe the TSA psychologists need some psychological testing themselves.

Airline pilots by personality tend to be decisive, quick-thinking, sensible, and, outside of dealing with air traffic controllers, impatient with bureaucratic hurdles. So it is understandable that they would have little patience for the TSA's psychobabble and all the other hurdles in place that have diminished the interest of pilots in participating in the program.

If you need proof about the recalcitrance that exists throughout the bureaucracy, it can be found in the May 13th edition of The Hill, the newspaper that covers Capitol Hill.

The newspaper wrote that Thomas Quinn, Director of the Federal Air Marshall Service, had written a letter on April 2nd to an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security complaining about the recently introduced bill-the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvements Act-by Senators Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) to require the TSA to carry out the will of Congress as expressed in the legislation establishing the FFDO program. It also would provide legal protection at all times for pilots who use their weapons outside the cockpit to prevent a terrorist attack.

Quinn called for a "strong coordinated effort" to defeat the Cockpit Technical Corrections and Improvement Act. Evidently, Mr. Quinn has decided to become a lobbyist-at taxpayer expense. If he wants to carry out a campaign to thwart the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvements Act, then he should resign and move to K Street.

The contempt the bureaucrats hold toward Congress was clearly demonstrated by TSA spokesman Brian Doyle in The Hill when he said TSA has been mischaracterized as thwarting the will of Congress, "If anything, the TSA has gone out of its way to bring it to fruition."

Gone out of its way?

Doyle's statement shows that he considers his agency's clear obligation to be only a favor...and one only grudgingly provided at that.

In the meantime, the TSA is content to push its big-budget CAPPS II program that can be outsmarted by savvy terrorists.

The fact is that the best, most effective defense against a terrorist, who has penetrated the porous passenger and luggage screening and the CAPPS II system (that is only as good as the data it has), is magnum force. Right now, more pilots could be armed if the TSA was carrying out the will of Congress as expressed in 2002. Given their contempt, the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvements Act is a necessary measure to promote air safety. Congress needs to hear the viewpoint of passengers on this vital issue.

Smart passengers will indeed let their Congressman and Senators know what they think. Hopefully, Congress will take action soon and put the TSA's bureaucrats in their place. In the meantime, air passengers would be well-advised that a book is available called: Never Again: A Self-Defense Guide for the Flying Public. If TSA insists on its tacit promotion of unilateral disarmament of pilots against terrorists then, if the unthinkable again becomes reality as it did on 9/11, passengers will find themselves to be the very last line of defense.

Bet that wasn't part of the package your travel agent sold you?

Steve Lilienthal is Director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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