It was a stunning victory for airline pilots and the flying public. The passage of the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act by the House of Representatives last week was textbook example of grassroots lobbying. Just two short weeks ago, the House Transportation Committee had actually passed a distorted version of the Arming Pilots bill, that destroyed the spirit of the original. But the more recent vote for the true-blue version was an overwhelming vote against bureaucratc foot-dragging in the war against terror.
The bad compromise version that was passed by the Transportation subcommittee was a two-year trial program that would arm only 250 pilots - out a pool of approximately 90,000. Obviously, the public’s chance of flying on an airplane with a pilot who was actually armed was slim. The proposed compromise also put a ceiling on the total number of pilots to be trained at 2% of the whole. But the most ridiculous part was the notion that the Transportation Safety Agency (otherwise known as the Bureau of Opposition to Arming Pilots) would ultimately make the call as to whether the trial program would be continued. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
It looked like an uphill battle for the pilots. The airline industry, the unions, and the Department of Transportation have been solidly aligned against the Arming Pilots bill, then known as H. R. 4635. As a result, the pilots who talked with Transportation Committee staff were told time and time again that changing the Committee-passed bill would be impossible. But the grassroots lobbyists from the Airline Pilots Association (APA) and the Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA) didn’t give up. They also got tremendous help from the G-Man, G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy gave the fight to change H.R. 4635 tremendous coverage on his radio show resulting in thousands of listeners calling their Representatives on the issue.
The battle lines on the House floor were drawn. It was pilots and their passengers allied against the anti-self-defense Department of Transportation, the airlines, and their supporters. It was even revealed that Ex-ATF chief John Magaw, now in charge of the TSA, had another solution in mind: non-lethal weapons in the cockpit. There have been many instances when criminals have not been subdued with stun guns, the weapons of choice of United Airlines. It is inconceivable that Magaw, who repeats his qualification of "forty years of law enforcement," is unaware of the many problems with non-lethal weapons. Could it be that he sees arming airline pilots as competition for getting building up TSA with more personnel such as sky marshals?
In the face of this opposition, two amendments to H.R. 4635 were passed, making the bill even better for airline pilots. The bill gave all pilots the option of being trained and armed, and prevented airline management to stop pilots from applying for training. With the help of an involved and and supportive public, these amendments passed easily, and turned the tide of battle. Hot on the heels of the veto-proof vote, APSA announced that liberal Senator Barbara Boxer had signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate version, S.2554. It is now the Smith/Boxer/Miller bill.
But its future in the U.S. Senate is not guaranteed. Unlike the House, the U.S. Senate works more slowly and allows individual Senators the right to block legislation from reaching the floor for a vote. One of the most influential Senators on this issue is Senator Fritz Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, who has been outspoken in his opposition to arming pilots. They only way of circumventing Hollings is to have both the Majority Leader, Senator Tom Daschle and the Minority Leader, Senator Trent Lott agree that this bill must come before the entire Senate for a vote. It will take enormous pressure from all who support the anti-terrorist strategy of arming pilots.
A repeat of September 11’s attack on America is still possible. In fact, in spite of all the hoopla about securing the cockpit, increased airport security, and politicians reassuring the public, we are still in many ways as vulnerable as we were on September 10. Arming pilots is the fastest and least expensive way to ensure we have the best chance of keeping an American airline pilot in control of the airplane and safely flying it to its destination or landing it at the nearest airport. The flying public deserves no less.