After the hijackings of four airliners as the opening act of the terrorist attacks on the United States nearly two years ago, air safety and thwarting further hijackings were a priority for nearly all Americans. From the lofty halls of Congress to the person on the street, folks voiced the opinion that “we” had to do something to ensure such attacks wouldn’t happen again. Airliners were retrofitted with unbreakable cockpit doors, passengers were subjected to strict, if unreasonable, searches and armed air marshals were put on some flights. As a last line of defense, pilots were allowed to arm themselves against attack. But only after they have completed a government training school. That’s where the finger-pointing starts.
Although the plans for boosting airline safety were never unanimous, as time passes the various camps move further apart and blame others for any problems in the system. Last week the Airline Pilots Security Alliance held a series of press conferences to call for faster action from the Transportation Security Administration in getting pilot volunteers qualified to defend aircraft and passengers.
According to the pilots’ group, the TSA has been dragging its feet in setting up and implementing the training program because it disagrees with arming pilots. James Loy, head of the TSA, fought the plan until it became obvious Congress would authorize it. The program has been running for six months, with the first class of about 50 pilots graduating after a week’s training in April and the second in July. Since Aug. 1, the TSA school in Georgia has been turning out one class every week and is booked through September.
Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says the process is too slow. He’d like to see thousands of certified “federal flight deck officers” in the skies and is disappointed there are only a few hundred so far. “We estimate 40,000 pilots would volunteer if it were properly managed by the TSA,” Lambert said.
We can understand Lambert’s and the other pilots’ frustration, but we’d caution them against going overboard with their criticism. According to Lambert, thousands of volunteers should have been certified by now. Was that even possible, given the newness of the program? The TSA had to find a location for its school, design a suitable program and hire personnel to implement that program. It’s not as though the TSA, a new agency itself, had a plan sitting on the shelf, awaiting congressional approval.
On the other hand, perhaps the agency could be doing things a bit faster. Only one class per week can go through the course. TSA officials say that rate will double after the first of the year and that all those who have volunteered thus far, and qualify, will be certified within a year. Another bottleneck seems to be the psychological testing required for volunteers before they are even accepted into the program. TSA officials say those tests are critical to ensure pilots are fit to assume responsibility for their passengers. “That is not a small thing for anyone to think about in a cowboy fashion,” Loy said. “That is a dramatically important thing for us to get right.”
We agree passenger safety is not something to be taken lightly, but no one is talking about arming random people off the street. As a rule, airline flight deck crews have years of experience taking responsibility for passenger safety.
And not just any licensed pilot is hired by the airlines. They are thoroughly checked out before the airlines will entrust them with their equipment and their passengers.
As in most disputes, each side has some justification for the positions it takes and this one is no different. Perhaps the pilots should give the TSA a break and realize setting up a program and training pilots cannot be done overnight. And maybe the bureaucrats at TSA should forget their reluctance to arm pilots and re-evaluate its fledgling program with an eye toward protecting passengers.