Since Sept. 11, there has been a national dialogue about the best way to protect our commercial airlines from another terrorist hijacking. A number of safety measures are being implemented -- reinforced cockpit doors, federal marshals on selected flights, intensified baggage screening, the federalization of airport security -- but the process will not be completed overnight.
Meanwhile, one of the cheapest and most effective measures for keeping terrorists from taking control of an airplane has received little public consideration. Why not allow pilots to carry firearms if they so choose? Had the pilots of the four airplanes that were commandeered on September 11 been carrying sidearms, the hijackers -- armed with boxcutters -- might not have been successful in their mission.
The American people support the idea. In a Time/CNN poll conducted just weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, 61 percent said they favored allowing pilots to carry guns. Two more recent polls conducted by the Wilson Center and the Winston Group found support for arming pilots has risen to 75 percent.
Airline pilots themselves overwhelmingly favor this option. The nation's five largest pilots unions, representing 90,000 pilots, sent a letter to President Bush two weeks ago, seeking his "assistance in the immediate development and implementation of a program to defend the American traveling program with voluntary armed pilots."
The pilots make the very good point that they are the first line of deterrence and the last line of defense on their aircraft. And few professionals are better equipped to be armed. Pilots endure rigorous screening before they can work for a major airline. More than 70 percent of the pilots at the major airlines have military training.
Most importantly, we already entrust pilots daily with the lives of hundreds of men, women and children on airplanes weighing 450,000 pounds and traveling 530 mph, carrying 24,000 gallons of fuel while flying seven miles above the earth. Clearly these are responsible and trustworthy professionals.
What's more, the law allows for pilots to carry. On November 19, 2001, President Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, a bill that resoundingly passed both houses of Congress. That legislation authorized commercial pilots to carry firearms in airline cockpits, subject to proper training and the approval of the Undersecretary of Transportation for Security.
This measure was made necessary by the actions of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Jane Garvey, who, one week after the September 11 attacks, initiated a procedure to repeal a 20-year-old regulation permitting authorized and trained flight crew members to carry firearms in the cockpits of commercial aircraft.
While Garvey has not offered a public explanation for her action, she has prevented the most effective deterrent to keeping hijackers out of the cockpit. Reinforced doors are not required to be installed until April 2003, and at a cost of $243 million, according to the airlines. Even then, the bulkheads and floors will not be reinforced, leaving cockpits vulnerable, pilots fear.
There are nowhere near enough federal marshals to cover the 35,000 flights that take place in the United States daily. Federal baggage screeners will not be in place at the nation's 429 airports until November. Meanwhile, knives, mace and even an occasional gun have slipped through the intensified screening process.
Some have suggested arming pilots with stun guns or "tasers" as an alternative. But common sense tells us that a pilot with a stun gun would be ineffective against a trained team of terrorists determined to crash the plane.
If an armed pilot is not the last line of defense against hijackers, where does that leave us? According to General Ralph Eberhart, Commander in Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, if terrorists get control of a commercial airline the only alternative is for the Air Force to shoot it down.
"Regrettably, I'm afraid that's always going to be a possibility now," Eberhart told me while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee. "We redefined it on 9/11, and we now train for that. We've established the procedures for that. We exercise for that, hoping that that would never happen. But hope is not a good strategy."
It's certainly not a good strategy for anyone aboard a hijacked flight. Doesn't it seem reasonable to insert one more preventative step before an F-16 launches a missile at a passenger plane? We allow law enforcement officers, animal control officers and forest rangers to carry their weapons on airplanes. Why not the individuals entrusted with the safety of the plane?
The authority to implement the law lies with Undersecretary of Transportation for Security John Magaw. I hope he will act quickly. Congress, pilots, and, most importantly, the American people support pilots carrying firearms.
The terrorists, I expect, do not.
John Hostettler represents the 8th District of Indiana.