Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Members of the House and Senate introduced legislation Tuesday to again include commercial cargo pilots among the ranks of those eligible to participate in the federal armed pilots program. Supporters called the loophole that excluded cargo pilots from the plan a "gaping hole in national security."
Both houses of Congress included cargo pilots in their legislative mandate to create a "Federal Flight Deck Officer" [armed pilots] program. But when the Homeland Security Act - in which the provision was included - went to a House-Senate conference committee for reconciliation, the word "passenger" was inserted in front of the words "airline pilot" each time they appear, effectively excluding cargo pilots from participating.
Capt. Marc Flagg flew as a Navy fighter pilot for more than a decade and has been a commercial cargo pilot for the last seven years. His parents died on American Airlines Flight 77 when it was crashed into the Pentagon by terrorist hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Flagg told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the armed pilot program - officially known as the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program - has at least one serious flaw.
"By only fortifying passenger aircraft, we have basically created a blueprint for terrorists to strike using cargo aircraft," Flagg argued. "To ensure one level of security, we must also arm cargo pilots."
First Officer Al Aitken is a pilot for a major passenger airline and represents the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. Joining Flagg Tuesday, he issued what some considered to be a shocking warning.
"I believe the possibility of another terrorist hijacking is actually greater for cargo operations," Aitken said. "It, therefore, makes no sense to exclude cargo pilots from the Federal Flight Deck Officer program."
Aitken noted a number of factors that contribute to the vulnerabilities of cargo aircraft, including:
Some cargo planes carry a limited number of passengers, but those individuals do not undergo the enhanced scrutiny of those flying on commercial passenger airlines;
Personnel who load cargo planes are not required to have the same criminal background checks as those who load and service passenger aircraft;
Airport cargo facilities are much less physically secure than passenger terminals and tarmacs;
Stowaways are frequently reported on cargo aircraft; and
Personnel with business at cargo ground operations are rarely screened before entering areas where they could gain unauthorized access to cargo planes.
With a major cargo hub located on the Ohio-Kentucky border, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) is particularly concerned that cargo pilots be able to protect themselves and their aircraft.
"Suppose, from any of those scenarios, a terrorist made his way onto a cargo plane and then, after takeoff, the terrorist made his way into the cockpit," Bunning hypothesized. "The cargo pilot would literally be defenseless."
Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and George Allen (R-Va.) have joined Bunning to introduce the Arming Cargo Pilots Against Terrorism Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) has introduced an identical bill in the House.
The legislation would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to alter the FFDO program to screen and accept qualified volunteers for training from the ranks of cargo as well commercial airline pilots.
"[This] is what we intended in the first place," Boxer explained. "Cargo pilots must be given a last line of defense to keep terrorists from gaining control of their aircraft, and we need to close this gap.
"I don't understand, frankly, why the conference committee took the cargo [pilots] out of this bill," she added. "It made no sense then, it makes less sense now."
The primary opponents of arming cargo pilots appear to be the cargo airlines. Pam Roberson, a spokesperson for FedEx, said her company opposes their pilots having any weapons.
"We oppose lethal weapons, such as firearms, and also non-lethal weapons, such as stun guns, on our aircraft," Roberson said. "We believe the presence of weapons would pose a substantial threat to the safety and security of crew members, as well as the structural integrity of the aircraft."
Research completed for the TSA prior to the implementation of the FFDO program concluded that it would be physically impossible for a handgun round fired inside an airplane to cause enough damage to rapidly depressurize the cabin or cause a structural failure in the hull of the aircraft.
Roberson said FedEx believes there is a more effective way to protect their pilots and aircraft.
"Safety and security of all FedEx employees is our top priority," Roberson explained. "We believe that a systematic approach, including strengthened cockpit doors and some of the other measures that are being taken, represent a better approach to aircraft safety."
But Bunning noted that not only are there no new reinforced cockpit doors on cargo planes - as have been required on passenger planes - but also that many cargo planes have no doors at all.
That fact, combined with the knowledge that federal air marshals are never on cargo planes, leads cargo pilot Leon Laylagian to wonder why anyone would want to exclude cargo pilots from the program.
"The elimination of cargo pilots from this effective layer creates a gaping hole in national security," Laylagian said. "The alternative is to accept locking the front door and leaving the back door wide open."
The Bunning-Boxer-Allen-Wilson bill would give the TSA 90 days to include cargo pilots who choose to undergo background investigations, psychological examinations and classroom and firing range training in the FFDO program.
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