Commercial pilots remain determined in their efforts to be allowed the means to fight back against would-be hijackers, and Wednesday the U.S. House bucked airline companies and the Bush administration to back them.
When pilots first raised this idea shortly after Sept. 11, we argued that the job of flying was best left to pilots and the job of security was best left to air marshals.
For several reasons, the measure passed by the house has more appeal than early requests to arm pilots. We support it and would encourage our senators and the Bush administration to get behind it.
Argument against the idea has emphasized that use of air marshals and putting pilots behind secure doors is sufficient. The pilots just need to concentrate on flying the plane, it is reasoned.
We agreed with that assessment back in September and we would never presume that an armed pilot would be any kind of replacement for an air marshal. Also, the emphasis on security measures should still focus on building a skilled force of air marshals and placing doors on aircraft cockpits that are impenetrable.
However, 10 months after the call for marshals on flights, federal agencies still are hustling to train more officers in this specialized area, and the plainclothes enforcers still ride only on random flights. Last we checked, there is a pilot on every flight.
Given the lasting support for the measure among the pilot unions and more recently by the Association of Flight Attendants, something tells us these people don't feel entirely safe yet -- in spite of the advances that have been made.
Alaska Rep. Don Young argued that the country now is ready to scramble F-16s to shoot down hijacked planes, if necessary, and so those on board should be given every opportunity to first gain control of the situation.
The measure passed by the House would allow any pilot to voluntarily arm themselves, but only after they have completed the proper training. The measure passed by the house also would require more self-defense training for flight attendants and give the Transportation Security Administration 90 days to act on an airline's request to equip pilots with nonlethal weapons such as stun guns. Both these items are positive developments.
The measure has merit. It must be clear, however, that a pilot's first responsibility is to fly the plane and that arming themselves provides only a final means of defense.
It's a final line of defense, but an important one. After all, it's tough to fly a plane if you're dead.
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