Published Tuesday, January 6, 2004, in New York Post

Pilots Still Unarmed

By John R. Lott, Jr.

More than two years since 9/11, news headlines still warn "Al Qaeda May Be Planning More Hijack Attacks."

In less than two weeks, hijacking fears cancelled six Air France flights, four British Airways flights and two Aero Mexico flights. Intelligence reports indicated that at least one would-be hijacker was trained to fly a plane. U.S. fighter jets are accompanying some flights with orders to shoot them down if they're hijacked.

Yet, while much of the attention has focused on international flights, there are still serious problems with our own security arrangements. Consider:

* Screening is hardly perfect. Knives, box-cutters and long scissors too frequently make it through security, but the problem is even worse: No matter how carefully screeners monitor X-ray machines and metal detectors, many weapons are essentially undetectable without a full-body search (e.g., ceramic or plastic knives taped to an inside thigh). Without full-body searches, determined terrorists will get weapons on planes. At New York's JFK airport alone, two dead stowaways have been found in the wheel-wells of airplanes in the last two weeks.

* Few experts have much faith in the effectiveness of the newly reinforced cockpit doors. Engineering constraints are the key: To settle a bet last summer, an overnight cleaning crew at Washington's Dulles Airport rammed a drink cart into one of the new doors on a United Airlines plane. The door reportedly broke off its hinges. The doors on European airlines generally don't provide even that much protection.

* Air marshals can't do it all. Pilots claim that while at least one-third of flights from Washington's Reagan National are covered with air marshals, the rest of the country is being ignored. Only a small fraction of U.S. carrier flights to Europe are covered, and then only one day a week.

Requiring foreign carriers to have marshals on planes when we have significant intelligence of a possible attack only seems to make it likely that the flight will be canceled. Do we really want to rely on advance intelligence to know which planes to guard?

A cost-effective backup layer of security is to let pilots carry guns. Terrorists can only enter the cockpit through one narrow entrance, and armed pilots have some time to prepare themselves as hijackers penetrate the strengthened cockpit doors.

The boredom and high attrition rates afflicting air marshals (who fly back and forth on long flights just waiting for something to happen) doesn't apply to pilots. No extra pay is required. Indeed, pilots are volunteering to take time off from work and travel to the training at their own expense.

Congress has twice overwhelmingly passed legislation to ensure pilots can carry guns. Yet only 500 to 800 out of more than 100,000 commercial-passenger pilots are certified to carry a gun, and the Bush administration has done what it can to discourage pilots from even applying for the armed-pilot program.

The training facility was closed down and relocated immediately after the first class. Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee, said that seemed "just another attempt to disrupt the program." The new facilities in New Mexico are four hours-plus from the nearest airport.

And pilots who want to apply face many barriers. The psychological testing and screening are much more extensive and intrusive than what was required for the vast majority of air marshals now on duty. Some questions even seem designed to disqualify pilot applicants. One pilot told me, "The Transportation Security Administration is viewed as hostile to pilots, and pilots are afraid that if they are not viewed as competent for the [armed-pilots] program, they may be viewed as not competent to continue being pilots."

Despite all the concern about hypothetical risks, arming pilots is nothing new. Until the early '60s, American commercial-passenger pilots on any flight carrying U.S. mail were required to carry handguns. The rule, which dates to the start of commercial aviation, was meant to ensure that pilots could defend the mail if their plane ever crashed. Indeed, U.S. pilots were still allowed to carry guns until as recently as 1987.

About 70 percent of the pilots at major American airlines have military backgrounds, and military pilots flying outside the United States are required to carry handguns with them whenever they fly military airplanes. There are no records that any of these pilots carrying guns has

Mr. Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003). He has advised both the Airline Pilots Security Alliance and the Allied Pilots Association on security issues.

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