Pilots packing heat

July 12, 2002

AIRLINE PILOTS are on their way to winning permission from Congress to carry guns on board as a last line of defense against terrorist hijackers.

This emotional response to security lapses not yet corrected since Sept. 11 is loaded with its own potential for peril.

The fear and frustration that prompted the overwhelming House vote Wednesday for allowing pilots to carry firearms if they choose are understandable. Too many baggage screeners are nabbing tweezers and corkscrews but letting more dangerous items through. The new Transportation Security Administration is moving too slowly off the dime in putting broader security measures in place. The July 4 shooting at an El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles reminded lawmakers -- who are among the nation's most frequent flyers -- how vulnerable they still are.

But before the Senate acts, a lot more thought needs to be given to the unintended consequences of pilots packing heat.

For example:

Cockpit shootouts -- Pilots are currently protected by doors fortified after Sept. 11 that can't be opened from the passenger side but are penetrable by explosives. All cockpit doors are due to be armored by next April.

If the flight deck is somehow breached, armed pilots and co-pilots could find each other most directly in their own line of fire. A volley of gunfire could cause major damage to the aircraft's control panel, sending the plane crashing to the ground. Pilots might mistakenly shoot a flight attendant who comes through a cockpit door left open.

Arming the hijacker -- An armed pilot is potentially useful only if the pilot has left the cockpit or the hijacker has entered it. In either case, there is an opportunity for the hijacker -- perhaps one without a gun -- to get the pilot's weapon as well as access to the controls.

Holster or lockbox? -- Could a gun be kept within easy reach of the pilot but no one else?

Air cowboys -- Which pilots would choose to carry guns? Would it be mostly those with a swagger and a trigger-happy style? If they carried a sidearm with them through the airport, would they feel obliged to use it in a threatening situation on the ground?

Indeed, if all pilots chose to carry weapons, estimates are that training alone would run about $500 million a year. Surely that kind of money could buy a less risky approach -- truly unbreachable cockpits and additional sky marshals primary among them.

Safety in the skies is critical for our security, our economy and our peace of mind. But it's worth considering whether passengers or pilots are going to be any safer if they are put in the path of yet another lethal force.

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