Janurary/February 2002 GUNS IN THE COCKPIT

Presidents Corner

by Jay C. White


Should airline pilots be allowed to carry guns while on duty in the cockpit? My answer is yes. Here is why.

Airliner hijacking began with a usually relatively benign command “Take me to Cuba.” At first, certain pilots were inclined to carry weapons in their flight kits with the intention of thwarting a would-be hijacker. Others felt it was not a wise thing to do because of possible unintended adverse consequences.

A complicating factor was that most cities and counties had laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons. That meant pilots were subject to multiple criminal violation charges for each flight.

Airline managers adopted policies against carriage of firearms by flight crews. As an alternative, psychological theory espoused by some posited that many hijackers were demented or mentally disturbed persons who could be persuaded not to do violence. Crews were encouraged to go along with their demands in the interest of preventing injury or death to passengers or crew. To a limited degree that was a successful tactic.

But the hijacker’s objective has changed. The objective is no longer simply to obtain transportation to some alternate destination, secure release of political prisoners or some other collateral result. It is a suicide mission with intent to kill all on board and others, including the hijacker. No amount of psychological persuasive effort will deter such a person.

Does this change the pilots’ posture? If a hijacker is allowed to board an aircraft the pilots no longer have a safe workplace. A basic precept of any employment relationship is that an employee should be afforded a safe place to work.

Ideally, proper screening and other protective measures would assure that no hijacker would ever be allowed to board an airline aircraft. If one does board an aircraft, however, what pilot protective measures can be employed?

An impregnable flight deck door could serve as a first line of defense. If that doesn’t work, however, as a last resort shouldn’t pilots who have been trained in the use of handguns be given a chance to defend themselves from injury or death? This is a question currently being debated extensively and a consensus may never be reached.

For more than 33 years I had the privilege of flying for a major U.S. airline on routes throughout the country and over the Pacific Ocean. During much of that time I was very conscious that my aircraft might be the next hijacked. It was not a comfortable feeling. If I were still flying airliners in today’s unsettled world, given a choice, I would choose to carry a handgun in my flight bag as an item of standard equipment. My right to act in my own self defense would be in addition to my responsibility to my passengers. It is not a right I would be willing to waive.

As United Airlines prepares to arm its crews with Tazars, the move to ramp-up the definition of Pilot In Command takes its most serious turn. We’d welcome your comments on this controversial step to ensure passenger safety.-Ed