Sunday, July 07, 2002

Airline pilots

They're willing to go to war

        You will be relieved to know that if you traveled on my airplane last week, I was not armed with nail clippers. My shoes were checked for explosives. And I was carrying only a spare tire under my cotton jacket.

        I don't know about everybody else. As we now know, neither does airport security.

        Fake or real handguns made their way through security four out of six times during tests at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in June. They missed three out of six fake bombs. USA Today reported our failure rate was the worst of the 32 major airports tested.

        Airport officials here were officially “disappointed.” That is not the word I'd have chosen. I was “disappointed” that instead of a meal, they served Meow Mix on my flight. I was “terrified” to think that security is a gigantic sieve. And sincerely ticked off.

        What is taking so long?

Cool under pressure

        In May, the feds declined to allow commercial pilots to carry firearms. Guns scare me, and I wish there weren't so many of them floating around. But if anybody seems qualified to handle one, it would be a person we already know is really good with machinery. Somebody who is cool under pressure. Somebody who has been screened and tested. Somebody we trust to fly a gigantic hunk of metal filled with our valuable selves.

        A pilot.

        But instead of using what amounts to an existing army, the Transportation Security Administration plans is to hire and train more air marshals. This has to be not only time-consuming but expensive. Marc Feigenblatt's plan is cheaper, quicker and safer. A Boeing 727 captain and instructor, he helped organize the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, lobbying to “train, arm and deputize volunteer airline pilots.”

        A former Air Force pilot, he says polls show nearly three-fourths of all pilots want to carry a gun to work. “We'll go through training on our own time and buy our own weapon. My government trusted me in a single-person aircraft to carry a nuclear weapon, but they don't trust me to carry a handgun. We've been advised to use cans of soda and fire extinguishers.”

        He shows me some horrifying photos of weapons confiscated at airports around the world. A knife disguised as a pen. The pen, by the way, writes. A gun, which fires four rounds, looks just like a cell phone.

        “No doubt these things would make their way through security,” he says. “We want to be another layer of safety, to able to defend the aircraft once it gets in the air.”

        Bills pending in both the House and the Senate are expected to reach the floor next week. Capt. Feigenblatt calls the House bill “watered down” and the Senate bill “exactly what's needed.” Both can be seen on the alliance's website,

        Most air travelers have been patient about restrictions and inconvenience since 911. But by now most of us expect something better than color-coded alerts and cosmetic searches. We have been told that Osama, Inc. is at work on some new atrocity. We believe it.

        We are at war, right?

        So why is the federal government squeamish about using guns to fight it?

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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