The misguided push by the Air Line Pilots Association for policy changes that would allow airliner cockpit crews to carry guns doesn't deserve the serious hearing Federal Aviation Administration officials are promising. If we're going to allow guns aboard commercial aircraft, put them in the hands of highly trained and qualified sky marshals. ALPA President Duane Woerth had it right the first time, when he told Congress that pilots couldn't "be Sky King and Wyatt Earp at the same time." The union's reversal, reportedly based on overwhelming membership support of measures that would give pilots the option of carrying guns aboard their flights, is grounded in understandable fear and anger but short on sound thinking.
FAA policy, until now, has been based much more soundly on keeping weapons off commercial airplanes. The agency had even been seeking a tightening of regulations and authorizations for law enforcement officers carrying guns on commercial flights. Pilots concentrating on the essential task of flying an aircraft could be much more easily disarmed and their firearms turned against them and their passengers, even if cross-training in close combat was provided.
That the unions would make such a demand, and the FAA would consider it, is a measure of the anxiety caused by the Sept. 11 hijackings and terrorist attacks. President Bush has proposed a far better idea, expansion of the Federal Air Marshal program to put highly trained undercover specialists - armed with guns loaded with special fragmenting bullets that don't jeopardize the airplane - aboard far more flights than the program randomly selects now. Perhaps marshals should be aboard all flights, paid for if necessary by a ticket surcharge that few fliers now would find objectionable.
There is no doubt pilots can play a vital role in thwarting hijackings. But that role should be played at the controls, not the trigger. During the "Black September" hijackings of four airliners by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine air pirates in 1970, one of the attempts, aboard an El Al Israeli Airlines flight, was thwarted by a combination of an on-board security guard, stewards and passengers who chose to fight, and a pilot in an armored cockpit who saw the struggle on closed-circuit TV and put the plane into a dive that threw the hijackers off balance.
Aboard one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, the situation was reversed with hijackers already at the controls. Passengers stormed the cockpit. Their heroism prevented a worse tragedy, but the attempt by pilots to both fight and fly ended in a crash.
The FAA has other measures to consider. Airport security is rightly higher on the priority list, along with efforts to increase cockpit security by decreasing passenger access in ways that could range from stronger steel or Kevlar doors and deadbolt locks, like the changes JetBlue already has announced, to El Al's double-door system, to completely sealed-off cockpits. If airline crews must be armed, "tasers" or other "stun gun" weapons that temporarily disable attackers might make more sense - but not in the hands of the folks flying the plane.