The Last Line of Defense

On May 21, two interesting news stories were juxtaposed:

Director of the Office of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Undersecretary of Transportation Security and Director of the Transportation Security Administration John Magaw were both being quoted as saying that suicide bombings in the United States were "inevitable" and could not be stopped. The intelligence community, which had just detected the greatest amount of communications traffic among known terrorist groups since just before the September 11 attacks, admitted that they had no information specific enough to head off these expected attacks.

At the same time, Magaw was testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee that he had decided he would not authorize airline pilots to have firearms for self-defense in their cockpits, despite the fact that the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) enacted late last year authorized TSA to approve such a program.

President Bush has said—and rightly so—of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the response of the United States and its allies, "This is war."

In other words, says Capt. Dennis Dolan, chairman of ALPA’s Security Task Force, "we are engaged in a global war on terrorism, but airline pilots cannot be trusted to defend themselves in their own cockpits.

"We are at war," he says, "but the troops manning the command and control centers of some of the terrorists’ historically and recently most favorite targets—airliners—have been told to simply trust that the perimeter defenses will hold.

"ALPA, as an organization, cannot meekly fold its hands in its lap and leave it at that," Capt. Dolan says.

Polling pilots on guns

A telephone poll conducted at ALPA’s behest earlier this year showed that 73 percent of ALPA’s members support a responsible program for arming pilots. Some pilots have complained, "You didn’t call everyone!"

That’s how a representative poll works: An experienced pollster uses sophisticated, scientifically validated sampling methods to ensure a representative sample—in this case, across airlines, aircraft types, seats, age, gender, and geographic region. ALPA used the same polling experts we use in organizing campaigns and contract negotiations—experts who consistently predict the outcome of, say, a pilot group’s vote on a tentative contract within a couple of percentage points.

Taking it to the TSA and airline CEOs

The ATSA created TSA and gave it the authority to create a program for arming pilots—with the caveat that the undersecretary and the airline must approve it. As both Magaw and the airlines expressed opposition, ALPA focused on overcoming their fears and objections.

On February 28, the Association sent the U.S. Department of Transportation a petition for rulemaking "to authorize flightcrew members employed by U.S. certificated air carriers to possess firearms for defense of the cockpit." This rulemaking, ALPA said, "would implement Section 128 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act…."

The Association noted that then-recent events (including a passenger partially entering the cockpit during an international flight of a U.S. airliner) had demonstrated that, in spite of enhanced aviation security measures, attempts have been made—since September 11—to forcibly enter the cockpit during flight with the intent of taking control of the aircraft.

ALPA added that, even when existing airliner cockpit doors are replaced by congressionally mandated secure doors, "the terrorist threat is so sophisticated that terrorists will devise other ways to breach the secure door."

In such a situation, the Association argued, "an armed flight crew member would be the last line of defense and would be able to protect his/her crew, the passengers and, ultimately, people and property on the ground."

Arming flightcrew members, ALPA stressed, would be "in accord with congressional intent and significantly decrease the likelihood of a future hijacking."

Capt. Woerth and other ALPA aviation security representatives met with Magaw in March to present ALPA’s position and concerns on this and other security issues. Magaw was attentive but promised nothing.

On April 26, Capt. Woerth sent a letter to four airline groups—the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the majority of U.S. airlines, the National Air Carrier Association (NACA), the Regional Airline Association (RAA), and the Cargo Airline Association (CAA)—urging their members to endorse ALPA’s proposal for arming screened and trained flight crew members.

ATA President Carol Hallett responded, in part, that "… ATA has no Board of Directors approved position on the subject…." She continued, "You can be assured that no one cares more passionately about the security and safety of airline crews and customers than the members of the ATA Board. You should know, too, that they will be following this debate closely and will speak out as they deem appropriate."

The response from NACA President Ron Priddy conveyed his organization’s internal deliberations on arming pilots. Priddy said Capt. Woerth’s letter "answered many of the questions our members had concerning the issue.

"We subsequently requested that the NACA Board of Directors consider your request," he continued. "Some member carriers were in favor of supporting ALPA’s efforts on arming pilots, but many were not in support.

"Thus, NACA will be unable to take a proactive position on arming pilots. However, we will not oppose your efforts to win that right, nor will we oppose legislation recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives or that being prepared for introduction in the Senate that would permit arming pilots."

Priddy added, "We commend the leadership ALPA takes on all aviation safety issues and would be pleased to meet with you on this or any other safety or security issue."

The Association also distributed a model letter for ALPA members to use in writing to the CEOs of their airlines in support of a responsible program for arming pilots.

On May 21, TSA Administrator John Magaw told the Senate Commerce Committee that he would not authorize airline pilots to have firearms in their cockpits. Now ALPA’s efforts on this issue must focus on the Congress.

H.R.4635: The Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act

ALPA’s Government Affairs Department worked closely with Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) to draft a bill, the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act (H.R. 4635), which would mandate that the TSA and the airlines fulfill the intent of Congress when the lawmakers enacted the Aviation and Transportation Safety Act (ATSA) in December 2001. The new bill would require the TSA, within 90 days of passage, to deputize airline pilot volunteers as federal flight deck officers authorized to carry firearms.

Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of ALPA’s National Security Committee, participated in a press conference that Reps. Mica and Young held at the Capitol building on April 30 to announce their bill. Capt. Luckey explained ALPA’s strong support for the bill.

Two days later, Capt. Luckey testified before the House Aviation Subcommittee. Rep. Young chairs the Subcommittee, and Rep. Mica is a member of it.

ALPA was the only pilot group asked to testify at the hearing.

In related news, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the nation’s largest flight attendants union, recently proposed requiring at least 28 hours of self-defense training for airline cabin crews and arming them with 16-inch metal batons. AFA intends for flight attendants to use deadly force only as a last resort.

Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) included the flight attendants’ proposals in legislation that he introduced on May 24 that would require the TSA and the airlines to develop a program for arming airline pilots with firearms.

ALPA and an e-mail petition

ALPA did not, however, elect to join a pair of other pilot groups that created an e-mail petition to the Congress and the White House in late April, calling for a program for arming airline pilots.

Capt. Dolan explains, "ALPA did not support this petition for several reasons.

"First, the petition is targeted at the wrong audience. While the words ‘To United States Congress and President Bush’ appeared in smaller print at the top of the petition, the letter in the body of the petition clearly led the reader to believe the petition was addressed to Congressman Mica of Florida."

He adds, "the letter could be read with a somewhat critical tone—the reader could infer that we pilots are displeased with what Congress has done on this issue, and that we are making additional demands on them to act now in support of our position. The Bush Administration, not Congress, has dragged its feet on this issue, mainly because of pressure from airline CEOs."

The proper audience to target in a case like this, Capt. Dolan explains, is "President Bush himself, possibly Undersecretary of Transportation Security Magaw, and certainly airline CEOs. ALPA’s Government Affairs Department has indicated that a number of congressmen who supported us on the issue of arming pilots, some of them reluctantly, are not pleased at being targeted by petitions like this after they have acted in our favor.

"While the groups who organized the petition say that Congressman Mica and a few other congressmen welcomed this petition, which they did, we were concerned about the others who might have a negative reaction to it. Congressman Mica and our supporters are not the audience we need to reach in this case."

Second, says Capt. Dolan, "We have to work with Congress on all of the other security issues that still need to be addressed, and we can’t afford to spend all of our political capital on a single issue. We have a much broader range of issues to address on behalf of our pilots, and we need to keep all the friends in Congress we can keep."

Third, the website link to the actual petition was open to be signed by anyone willing to provide his or her name and e-mail address.

"The times that I checked the website, the vast majority of signers of the petition were not airline pilots," notes Capt. Dolan.

"We don’t believe that e-mail petitions carry the same level of weight as actual letters, since bulk e-mail can be filtered and bulk-deleted by the recipient," he adds. "In short, this is not an effective way to communicate, although it seems to be because it makes participating easy."

Finally, Capt. Dolan points out, "ALPA was the only pilot group invited to testify during the House Aviation Subcommittee’s May 2 public hearing on the issue of arming pilots.

"I’d say that this indicates that we are probably doing something right on this issue," he says, "in that almost everyone in Congress recognizes that the only reason any of the legislation regarding arming pilots got passed in the first place was the result of ALPA’s efforts."