Developing a failsafe system of airline security an urgent priority after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America will be a tall order, pilot Dan Anderson says.
"The bottom line is and anyone with common sense would realize this there's no security system that is airtight," Anderson, one of a handful of commercial airline pilots who reside in the Rim country, said. "Humans are going to make mistakes, equipment is going to fail, and it's going to happen.
"If there are enough people out there determined to get a weapon on an aircraft, and don't care if they are caught, the statistical probability is that someone is going to succeed," Anderson said. "And that's where pilots need a last line of defense."
Underscoring Anderson's point that security needs to go beyond X-ray machines and passenger body-checks is an incident that occurred last week on a Southwest Airlines airliner as it was in flight. A passenger remembered that he was carrying a small handgun which had not been found by security-gate metal detectors. He turned the weapon over to a flight attendant.
There have been, too, the odd contradictions of the airline industry's current efforts, such as one Anderson recently witnessed.
"I was going through security at Sky Harbor, and there was a law enforcement person who declared his weapon and sent it through the X-ray machine," he recalls. "But on the other side of the metal detector, he still got frisked to make sure he wasn't carrying a knife."
For the moment, such glitches and inconsistencies are to be expected, said Mike Chittick, an FAA aviation safety inspector who worked as a commercial pilot and pilot examiner for 24 years.
"Security measures are going to get tighter and tighter," he said. "Unfortunately, it takes time to do that. What's going to happen is, we won't see drastic improvements in a short time. It's going to take a long time, and that's just the way it is."
Considering the possibilities
In pursuit of the drastic improvements Chittic mentions, the FAA and nearly every government agency with a remote connection to the travel industry has weighed in with their potential solutions. So far, however, few of those brainstormed ideas have won votes of confidence from the pilots themselves including one headline-maker hatched by their own professional organization.
Last month, the nation's largest pilots' union asked Congress to allow its members to carry guns in the cockpit, and for them to ultimately be deputized as federal law enforcement officials. If such an idea ever gets as far as legislation, it will not be without the dissenting opinion of pilots like Anderson.
"Serious consideration should be given to arming the pilots with some kind of device," Anderson said, "but not something that could conceivable create more danger," such as a standard gun, where a single, badly aimed bullet could conceivably take down the entire airplane.
"The alternative is to arm the pilots so they can kill the one individual, which makes more sense. I'm kind of in that camp," he said, referring to another pilot union suggestion: that pilots be provided with frangible bullets made of highly compressed, powdered alloys designed to shatter on harder surfaces, which would theoretically may make them safer to use on in-flight airplanes.
"I think the most viable option would be to deputize and train the pilots, and to give them federal authority. That would be the best thing. That would then lead to the training and arming of the pilots, which (with the pilot and co-pilot) would basically give you two federal sky marshals on every flight."
Payson resident Dean Macnab, who flies for two regional airlines, is uncomfortable with the thought of guns and bullets of any sort "simply because of the confined space. If someone were to storm the cockpit, by the time you got the gun out you'd be more likely to shoot yourself or the captain before you got to the assailant."
One of the companies Macnab works for recently announced that Taser-brand stun guns would be installed in every cockpit within its fleet. Taser guns fire a wired dart at targets 15 feet away and administer a high-voltage shock to render the targets helpless.
"Again, I don't know how effective that's going to be," he said. "The Taser requires that you shoot two electrodes into somebody's body, and it's only good for one shot. So I don't think it's a great idea."
Neither does Anderson.
"The problem is that a person wearing a thick coat could defeat a Taser," he said, adding that each gun is capable of disabling a single person rendering it ineffective in situations such as the Sept. 11 hijackings, which were committed by groups of four and five.
Barbarians at the gate
There are, however, two lines of defense with virtues endorsed by Anderson, Macnab and Chittick. The first of those is already installed on every commercial flight that leaves the ground: "The flying public," Macnab said.
"Everybody right now is very alert ... they're all very aware of other passengers, they're keeping their eyes on each others' bags," Macnab said. "I really don't think that any of them would allow what happened to happen again."
The second crucial point of security is one now being upgraded by every airline in the world: the cockpit door.
Before Sept. 11, the Payson pilots said, there was no way to keep a would-be hijacker or terrorist bent on suicide out of the cockpit. Although the doors were locked as a matter of procedure, they are made of lightweight panels that can be kicked out in the event of an emergency.
One month ago, a federal fund of $500 million was established to finance aircraft modifications to delay or deny access to the cockpit. Funding is now being provided through grants or cost-sharing arrangements to be used for a number of projects, including to develop and implement means to restrict opening of the cockpit door during flight, and to fortify cockpit doors to deny access from the cabin.
A glimpse of things to come was offered this week in Europe, when bullet-, heat- and shock-proof doors on flight decks were introduced for the first time by Virgin Airlines. The doors also feature digital locks and closed-circuit television monitors to ensure that only authorized staff gain entry.
In the United States, Anderson said, airlines have been given 18 months to implement such changes. That done, he adds, "I think it will solve the problem." But in his view, even impenetrable doors would not make weapons in the cockpit a moot point.
"I think (some type of gun) would still need to be there, for two reasons. One, it would provide a sense of security, which I think is important ... The feeling of safety goes a long way, and people who fly airlines deserve that.
"Secondly, the most important lesson learned Sept. 11 was that, if you can't imagine it, that doesn't mean it won't happen," Anderson said.
"You can put up four cockpit doors and say, 'No one will get through this.' But sometime, somehow because someone failed to lock it, or the mechanism failed, or the person is just determined enough to get through it you'll be proven wrong. So to put one more last line of defense in there, even if the need is infinitesimal, I still think it's worth doing."
For all this discussion of cockpit safety, each of the Payson pilots asked that one important point be emphasized.
"Right now," Anderson said, "airline passengers are safer than they have ever been in the history of the aviation industry. It is important that people know that."