An Open Letter to George Will Regarding the Arming of Pilots

Dear Mr. Will:
Your recent syndicated column on arming airline pilots (which ran May 30, 2002 in The Washington Post) contained an astonishing number of half-truths, unsupported assertions and implications, and several outright factual errors.

For the record, the Air Line Pilots Association offers the following critique of the various errors, mischaracterizations, and cleverly contrived implied truths in that column, in order of appearance. Yes, it is detailed and contentious, but so was your column, so we feel we must respond in kind:

á When you quoted one of your three anonymous pilots saying that “the overriding priority must be to guarantee that cockpits are sealed behind bulletproof doors,” the implication is that the new doors cannot be defeated by terrorists. This is wrong. It also neglects the fact that even the new, completely redesigned cockpit doors have to be opened in flight for various purposes.

á You blithely stated that diversion to the nearest airport “can be 10 minutes.” Okay, technically, the statement is correct as written. What you neglected to mention was that it also can be hours to the nearest airport.

á You quoted one of the pilots as saying “You cannot fly an airplane and look over your shoulder, firing down the cabin.” ALPA has never suggested that firearms would be fired “down the cabin.” Quite the opposite. Firearms would be only for hijackers who already are breaching the cockpit entry. Furthermore, at least two pilots would be in the cockpit. One would fly the airplane and the other would defend the cockpit. Multi-tasking and dividing responsibilities in emergency situations are familiar exercises for any airline pilot.


á When you said “another potential problem with arming America’s 120,000 commercial airline pilots…” the implication is that all 120,000 would be armed. Given the voluntary nature of the proposal, the stringent screening and training requirements, and the ensuing responsibilities, no more than a small fraction of these pilots is ever going to end up carrying firearms.

á You raised the specter of “cowboys or renegade pilots” being “live wires and risk-takers” who would be “more inclined to go out into the cabin” to stalk hijackers. This is directly contradicted by another quote in the same column, that pilots won’t open the door in the event of a hijacking and that “The flight attendants know they are on their own.” Furthermore, any pilot who is a cowboy risk-taker who deliberately acts counter to standard procedures has no business in the cockpit. Selection, training, and peer pressure weed out such tendencies. Finally, on a more personal note, your insinuation that former military fighter pilots would be “cowboys or renegades” is insulting. The training and discipline that they bring to the cockpit are exactly the qualities that make them highly sought after by airlines.

á You quoted one of your pilots suggesting that the wording of the ALPA poll (which showed 73.2% support among its members for voluntary arming) “was written so as to produce an expression of support for arming pilots.” The relevant question, #2 in the survey, reads as follows: “The Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed by Congress in November 2001 authorizes pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit for defense of the flight deck, subject to the approval of the Undersecretary for Transportation Security and the individual air carrier. Assuming such approval is given, do you favor or oppose pilots, who volunteer for this duty, being armed with firearms solely for the defense of the flight deck?” This is hardly a leading question.

á Now we get to a really amazing bit of uninformed union-bashing. “There is in the airline industry the suspicion that the drive to arm pilots, to equip them for potential action back in the cabin, is for ALPA a new front in the organization’s long-standing campaign to revive the requirement for a third pilot in the cockpit.” This extraordinary accusation hints at a broader motive; but the broader motive is yours—more on that below. For your information, this whole notion is flat out wrong. The crew complement issue was definitively and conclusively disposed of by a special White House panel in 1981 - said panel having been convened at ALPA’s request! ALPA agreed in advance to abide by the results, and it has. The union has made no efforts, formal or otherwise, to resurrect this issue.

á Here is another statement of yours that is factually correct so far as it goes, but you failed to tell the rest of the story. “However, the pilots of El Al, Israel’s airline, are not armed, and the airline has not had a hijacking in 34 years.” True, but there are enough crucial differences to make the comparison meaningless. First, El Al pilots used to be armed. This practice apparently has stopped, but only after the airline took the following steps: it installed “man trap” hardened double doors to the cockpit, installed hardened bulkheads and other aircraft defensive equipment (some of which is classified), it stationed an armed guard at the front of the aircraft who shoots to kill if a warning not to come to the area in front of the cockpit doors is not heeded, and it always positions several armed air marshals elsewhere in the cabin. Furthermore, in those 34 years, El Al security screening has been excruciatingly thorough. Passenger screening typically takes two to three hours, at a level of detail that we have not achieved, and cannot achieve, even with post-911 changes. If the airlines want to go to an El Al security system, and the government wants to pay for it through subsidies (such as El Al enjoys) then quite possibly the need for arming pilots would be obviated. But be careful what you wish for.

á Another suspect statement reads “Furthermore, gunfire in the cockpit could easily shatter the windshield. In which case, says one of these pilots, ‘someone is going to be sucked out—the terrorist, if he`s not strapped in.’ ” First, pilot guns are going to be aimed backwards toward the door, not to the front. Second, if guns are being fired in the cockpit and are hitting a windscreen, say, because the pilot’s aim was deflected during a struggle, then it means that terrorist hijackers already are within physical reach of the pilots. Which means that without firearms, there is a good chance that the terrorists will gain control of the aircraft and smash it into the ground. Hijacking scenarios can be reduced to two possible outcomes:
A. The terrorists take control of the airplane and smash it into the ground, killing all on board and possibly victims in a ground target; or B. Outcome B says that anything short of Outcome A has to be better.

In summary, we have an excruciatingly long list of necessary corrections. Some of these are factual. Some tell “the rest of the story.” Some go to the use of misleading language. Most of these errors could have been pointed out to you beforehand, but you gave us only one hour to provide a spokesman before you met your pilot interviewees, and apparently you did not follow up on our offer for further assistance. Now, let us speak of wider motive. We are left wondering why a conservative columnist would take a position against arming pilots. After all, last November you wrote in defense of firearms in the post-911 environment, saying, “Widespread possession of guns is justified by considerations of public safety ... because law enforcement personnel can never be numerous enough to guarantee safety. (Remember this test: Call for a cop, an ambulance and a pizza. Which will get there first?)” (Try making that same call from an airplane and see who responds: military jets, ready to shoot you out of the sky.)

The answer to the question of motives can be found in a more recent column of yours, wherein you engaged in some unabashed bashing of airline unions. Airline management claims that the federal labor law that governs airlines is outdated and gives the unions too much power. Oddly enough, in the 1980s and 1990s, when economic conditions gave management the upper hand, the same labor law was just fine because it favored management. Now that conditions have changed, all of a sudden the law is broken and needs to be replaced with the so-called “baseball arbitration” method, which takes away labor’s only real weapon, the threat of a strike.

Put in this perspective, your column on arming pilots wasn’t about firearms in the cockpit. It was merely another vehicle for you to attack organized labor. You certainly are entitled to voice such opinions; but at the least you owe it to your readers to present the facts correctly and completely. You did neither in your treatment on firearms in the cockpit. Sincerely, Capt. Duane Woerth
President, Air Line Pilots Association