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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Safer air travel: Do airlines need armed guards?
US President George Bush is expected to announce a series of sweeping new measures today to improve flight security in the wake of the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.
These are said to include extending the use of armed plain-clothes agents - or air marshals - on domestic flights as well as measures to strengthen cockpit doors to prevent unauthorised entry.
However, Mr Bush is unlikely to agree to calls for airline pilots to be armed.
At present only flights by El Al, the Israeli airline, carry armed air marshals and cockpits are sealed to protect against attempted intrusions.
Would such measures make any difference to airline safety? Could they prevent similar attacks happening in the future? Or are they an unrealistic option?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
As usual, the Americans view guns and violence as the answer to any problem. Investing in a decent ground security system, which ensures that NO weapons are on board the flight, makes more sense.
The best way to prevent terrorists on planes is to prevent them getting on board in first place. Ground security is the most important thing, once they get on a plane it is much more difficult.
Guns in planes are possibly going to be a target for terrorists. This means they do not have to actually carry anything onto the plane but take it off guards/pilots once they are on board. I think some type of disabling device would be more appropriate.
Will Robinson, UK
There is no point in sealing cabin doors. Aircrew are not going to stay inside the cabin whilst passengers lives are being put at risk. What is required is gold old security checks and vigilant security guards. I travel frequently and have been amazed at the security at some US airports. In Miami a man walked through the detectors, setting them off, whilst staff continued to talk about a forthcoming baseball game.
All these suggestions are still allowing for the possibility of a terrorist getting on the plane. Surely we must find a way to eliminate the cause of the problem not the symptoms. Is it really fair to put the responsibility of the passengers and crews lives in the hands of the pilot? There he is behind a sealed double door with or without a gun, and there's this terrorist saying open up or I'll kill them all, what pilot in his right mind would keep the door locked?
It seems as though terrorists have now lost the element of surprise to use aeroplanes as 'bombs'. The captain must keep the door locked regardless of what happens on the other side of it. This would render armed air marshalls a pointless and dangerous addition to security.
Have an exterior cockpit entrance door and a sealed wall between the pilot and passengers. The wall is so the terrorist can't get to the pilot and, more important, the pilot can not unlock a door and compromise the purpose of separation. If the wall is sealed, that will eliminate hundreds of 'if-but-maybe' senarios. Engineers should design the safest solution. I do mean engineers and not politicians.
I have been shocked at how lax airport security in the US is - my husband flew here from Houston last week, and though a little tighter, non passengers were still allowed through. The fault lies with the ground checks, once in the air it is too late. US security personnel are poorly paid, so the right people are not in place.
Until cockpit doors are made absolutely secure, pilots should at least be armed with stun guns. Pilots are the line of last defence against the terrorists' utimate objective - control of the aircraft. To leave pilots powerless in the wake of the events of September 11th makes no sense.
Ground systems and intelligence already in place have failed miserably.
Why do you need hand luggage on an aircraft? Everything you need is provided, except your personal medication, if needed.
I feel that the emphasis must be on the security before the aircaft takes off. If there are no weapons or bombs on the aircarft then it cannot be hijacked. Further if we only ever address the symptoms we will never root out the problem. In this instance the terror groups chose aircraft, if we make this impossible they will use another soft but no less effective means to an end.
As a civilised society we must target all terror groups no matter who they are or who they target.
On leaving the US to return to the UK, there was one security section, which I didn't bleep at and so was free to walk in with no questions. That was it - no other checks, and people carrying on suitcases as hand luggage.
I think the US needs to get their levels of security right at the airports before they embark on the 'air marshal' road, after all, if they had as rigorous checks as we have, perhaps any passenger with a weapon wouldn't get near the plane.
A lot of people here believe that as we trust the pilots with 200 or more lives, we can trust them with a gun. Polls say 80% of pilots are ex-military, and agree to being armed, which is a constitutional right here. I would personally advocate the "doubled door" with a "buzz-in button" to the cockpit, and possibly in-flight surveillance cameras. I also know the pilots can depressurise the cabin to knock everyone out. However, if a terrorist did make himself know on a plane in America at this point, I don't think he'd have a chance!
It has long been my fear that the lack of arms on planes would result in just such a catastrophe as has come down in the US. I for one would be thrilled if the sky marshal idea was made the law of the world's airlines, and I think people who are against it are holding on to their wishy-washy PC ideals at the expense of common sense and the reality of a world filled with remorseless jackals.
I believe the idea of pilots with guns is a good one. Pilots trained in the use of weapons would be a big deterrent to terrorists. The world has changed and, like it or not, we must change. As to the holding of a hostage to get the captain to turn over the plane, a decision must be made. One life for the lives of hundreds, it's sad but true.
The safest airline in the world is El Al. They have armed guards on all flights. Let us copy what works instead of staying with the plan that failed.
First the United States placed pre-flight screening of passengers in the hands of the airlines, who, in order to reduce costs, placed the responsibility of security in the hands of contracted private security firms. These entities then hired, with little screening or training, minimum-wage employees to guard the ramparts, so to speak. When this failed the response is to arm air marshals, pilots and flight crew with guns. I was quite willing to continue flying until I heard I might not only have to worry about hijackers but also armed personnel of the United States and possibly the airlines. I don't particularly look forward to having to duck anyone's bullets, much less an explosive decompression. It won't matter to me or any other passenger who fires the shot.
The placement of US air marshals on flights would be a good step to helping to prevent the type of hijackings that the US has just experienced. Permitting police officers who have received special training to fly for free while armed would be another step. These steps should be applied to domestic flights in the US and flights to or from the US on US carriers.
The Bush administration should understand the ground reality before policing the skies. Many airlines, just to make more money than their counterparts, allow back-to-back flights without giving enough time to check the passengers and their luggage. If suitable intervals are kept between the scheduled flights, airport authorities would get enough time to scrutinise each and every passenger as well as their belongings. Arming pilots may balance the equation with the hijackers but does not ensure the safety of hundreds of lives.
Intentionally putting a gun on a plane, whether in the hands of a pilot or a marshal, will inevitably cause the "give me the gun or I stab her" stand off. Better to follow the example of the pilot of Flight 594, who said to his passengers "If there are terrorists on this plane," (there weren't), "they are probably outnumbered 195 to five ..." He went on to give some tips for using non-violent force of superior numbers to overpower and contain any threat to everyone's safety.
Surely the need for increased security prior to boarding an aeroplane is paramount to eradicating terrorism on air travel, especially when there have been so many reports of people accidentally carrying knives undetected in their hand luggage since 11th September. This is the issue that needs to be tackled, and quickly, if the reputation of air travel is to remain unscathed after this. Leave guns out of aircraft; we are only causing problems for ourselves.
I would personally make it harder to breach the cockpit door, and when the aircraft is under threat just turn down the oxygen in the compartment thus putting the terrorists asleep. Airport Security should be able to spot a passenger walking onboard with air tanks.
These comments read like the position of a gun-control lobbying organisation. It is time that we re-think the role of the pilot on an airplane, and promote the pilots into the role of law enforcement. Who better to entrust with this responsibility than the pilots? We arm many other members of our society, from the secret service all the way down to the security guard at the local shopping mall, so who could possibly argue with arming a pilot? All the factual arguments against firearms on airplanes seem to revolve around the depressurisation of the aircraft, completely ignoring the technical feasibilty of weapons loaded with special bullets that could effectively incapacitate a potential hijacker but would not have the ability to penetrate the shell of the aircraft.
Maybe where you have an itty-bitty country with little internal flying, you can afford to be lax about safety. But in the US, we need more protection. I'm for gun control generally, but not against law enforcement officers carrying guns to protect us.
I'm a retired TWA Captain (qualified on B 767 and 757) and I definitely think that Pilots should be armed.
We have demonstrated that we are very responsible people, and we need to be able to defend our "ship" and its passengers.
Sealing the cockpit is not free of risks.
What if a terrorist manages to infiltrate, disguised as a pilot?
He or she could then act in peace.
Some form of secure external override
of the pilot seems to be a safer but
A colleague of mine has just flown over from the USA on an American Airlines flight. While his hand luggage went through the X-Ray machine, the operators were stood around chatting and didn't look at the screen at all. If that is the level of motivation and professionalism that exists at the security check-in, even after the events of the 11th, how can you expect to prevent terrorism?
Surely it would be cheaper and safer to train and pay these people properly, than to place armed air marshals on every flight?
Graham Childs, UK
With training, the pilots should be issued guns. At least give them the choice. Pilots are mostly ex-military officers and will use the weapons only in self-defence. In the 70s pilots were often known to carry pistols. That stopped the rash of skyjackings for nearly a decade.
Airline stewards already have to deal with violent passengers far too frequently these days. Perhaps having a plane full of stewards trained in control and restraint techniques (and possibly a selection of tazers or batons to reinforce the point) could solve both air rage and hijacking problems, without the risks of having weapons seized, cabins depressurised or half the cabin CS gassed.
Pandora's box has opened. Not only must ground security, air security and pilot training be tightened up, but a very real threat exists of "sleeper agents" working as pilots for major airlines. The perpetrators of 11th September's horror prepared for it well in advance, waiting perhaps years. How many more await, with long service working for an airline? All airlines that take the safety of their passengers seriously should re-vet all their qualified pilots. This wouldn't have stopped the recent attacks, but it might stop the next wave.
What is needed is better screening before the plane is boarded. Official crew in crew areas only, friends, colleagues and guests are designated passenger status only. More radically, the autopilot could be locked into a holding pattern using a panic button, preventing the plane from being a hijacker's tool and creating opportunities in the hands of negotiators at ground control.
If there are concerns over the safety of the currently available gases, presumably scientists could develop a new, safer, solution to put people 'to sleep'. After all I'm sure the US defence budget is big enough to allow some additional research. Any adverse reactions would surely be more acceptable than the loss of an entire plane.
Robert Haig, US
How could things have turned out any worse, had there been armed persons on those four flights?
After reading these posts, I am grateful that airline security is not run by laymen. The amount of theorising on what could happen and what should be done during a hijacking is frightening. Pepper spray and tasers are essentially ineffective in such a closed confined space of a plane. Guns are still the best solution for stopping a violent individual quickly. Other methods such as gassing everyone on the plane but the pilots may work as well. In any event, airlines should be the ones responsible for the security on their planes.
Phil Taylor, Bracknell, UK
I am not in favor of pilots or passengers carrying firearms aboard planes. Those policies would literally backfire. Today, I am in favor of Federal Air Marshals aboard US flights, even if they are armed with non-lethal but disabling weapons. As for how I will feel tomorrow, I don't know. We in the US have had too much of a "gun culture," I must agree. I'd like to see greater vigilance about protecting our safety without overreacting and making things worse. Even Air Marshals cannot replace common sense on the ground.
Surely we are close to being able to fly aircraft from the ground. Hijacking would then be impossible.
Who will vet the armed guards? I would rather fly on a plane without these guards but with good security checks on the ground. I have flown within the USA and have been waved through when the metal detector was ringing.
Whilst the US is proposing security with on board officers and thicker doors, things which seem almost commonsense in the aftermath, it seems ludicrous to not look at the security before the flight is in the air. More checks on the ground, bag searching and metal detectors should be used frequently on international and internal flights.
The things that happened in America were due fully to security in the airports being too lax. A plane is still a plane, hundreds of tons of metal and all that fuel. It doesn't matter if it's going to Europe, or to Washington from Texas - it's still a dangerous thing.
David Parker, USA (ex-pat)
Many comment about sleeping gas as a solution but hijackers could use a gas mask.
I think the best solution is sealed cockpits, without any guns in the plane.
The use of gases, such as chloroform, CS and "sleeping" gas or "knock-out" injections would not work. As a medical researcher I use chloroform regularly, I have seen it "eat" through plastics, rubber and other materials. If it was released into an aircraft cabin I'd hate to think what it would do to rubber and plastic door/window seals and plastic covered electrical cables. As far as CS gas goes it is an irritant, hence a hijacker "high" on adrenaline would most likely become more violent. "Sleeping" gases and "knock-out" injections as used by highly trained anaesthetists in operating theatres are very dangerous and the persons under anaesthesia must be monitored with equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars to make sure they remain anaesthetised but also are not killed by the gas or injection.
Nancy Fahrenthold, Snellville, Georgia, USA
I urge the decision makers to prevent rather than confront.
If it's not possible to seize control of an aircraft then hijacking cannot succeed. Thus seal the flight deck and control systems so they cannot be commandeered.
No weapons should be in an aircraft cabin at any time whether in the hands of passengers, hijackers or security staff.
Putting a weapon onto an aircraft provides an opportunity to seize and misuse it.
Imagine the headlines. "Abusive passenger shot dead for using a mobile telephone," or "Flight XYZ123 downed by negligent discharge of Air Marshals' weapon - 300 dead."
Lack of ground security lead to the hijacking of the aircraft used on September 11th, and that is where the authorities need to concentrate.
Personally I would boycott any airline with armed staff on board - it is a disaster waiting to happen.
The only problem that I can see with sealed cockpits is who would make the pilots' cups of tea? The pilots that I know would be horrified if they thought they would have to do it themselves.
Kate Clarke, Norway
If you trust a pilot
with the lives of 300 passengers it is
absurd to suggest that he couldn't
be trusted with a firearm. In the 70's the
world's airlines were protected by air marshals
(armed with pre-fragmented ammunition that
will not penetrate the skin of the aircraft) and
highjackings were reduced almost to zero.
To those who believe that airline staff should
be unarmed I ask this: How could it have
made Sept 11th any worse?
How about the possibility of arming cabin staff with less dangerous weapons such as taser type stun guns? Perhaps this might discourage some of the so-called "air rage" situations as well.
A combination of armed pilots and a sealed flight-deck with a reinforced door is the best solution.
Low-velocity side-arms will represent some safety risk relating to potential depressurisation, but this is far out-weighed by the deterrence for terrorists. Having marshals in the cabin, is not, in my view, the best solution, as it's expensive to cover thousands of flights per day, just on the rare chance that there might be a terrorist on board, and outside the flight-deck, the marshal is vulnerable and could be identified and neutralised quickly by the terrorists. You should have the arms and protection at the target that the terrorists are aiming for i.e. the flight deck.
Surely if a terrorist is on board a plane, security has already broken down. Tighten up baggage checks and passport control. I'd rather have to spend half an hour having my passport and ticket checked against some international database and my luggage searched. After all, what use is a gun if the terrorists' aim is to blow up the plane? Flying into Heathrow from Europe you go over the City, the Houses of Parliament etc. You don't need to purposefully crash the plane into a building to do some serious damage.
Jim Hubbell, USA
Surely this is inciting a push towards a military regime like in the Palestinian region, where guns are used threateningly as a deterrent. Actions like this will not solve the problem of hijacking incidents, but rather lead terrorists to invent even more complex plans. To use a gun against a gun just takes everybody further from a resolution leading to peace.
Where on the aircraft would these armed guards sit? In business or economy class? How many would you have on a 747? Who takes over when the guards eat or go to the toilet? The whole business is complete nonsense and if this really is a serious proposal by President Bush then God preserve us.
Anything to stop what happened from occurring again. But the threat of depressurisation is a real one. Couldn't guards be armed with pepper sprays or stun guns instead?
The idea only makes real sense if other precautions are taken, as is the case with El Al. Here the security checks made on an individual before he or she steps on board are extremely thorough. However, the volume of traffic handled by El AL is extremely low in comparison to that handled in the US. Possibly another factor is that El Al has been specifically warned and alerted to terrorist activity. In some sense they must remain on a high state of readiness to confront potential threats.
The majority of the world's travellers on the other hand do not live with daily threats of terrorism and would be quite indignant if subjected to these stringent checks. Thus any long-term security measures are not likely to be effective simply because most people are not capable of confronting a threat that does not appear to directly influence them. But terrorists are not idiots. They choose a mission with a high probability of success. The game is to reduce risk factors to enable a successful terrorist operation. Higher
levels of on-board security would help in this endeavour.
Martin, United Kingdom
Armed pilots, air marshals, stun guns, fortified cockpits - these seem to miss the point: hijackers normally threaten the life of someone in the cabin on the other side of the locked door, usually a flight attendant? The dilemma for the pilot would still be the same: 'do I act, risking someone else's life, or follow the hijackers' instructions?'. The best, and possibly safest, on-board method would be to use sleeping gas, as already suggested by a contributor, but the objective is still to prevent someone getting on board with the capability of doing harm.
Armed 'air marshals' is about the most 'air brained' idea ever imagined! The potential hijacker now only needs to grab a defenceless air stewardess and threaten to kill her unless the air marshal comes forward. If he does not identify himself then the airhostess dies, if he does then the hijacker is instantly armed. What a position to put an air marshal in, not to mention the stewardesses.
Steve Price, UK
No weapons for pilots. They could instead be protected by a sealed door to the cockpit. Would you ask a teacher to use a gun in order to protect children?
Yes, strengthen cockpit doors. But don't have an armed guard on the plane. What happens? He's overpowered, then they have a pistol. There should be some security, but the bottom line is, stop them getting on the plane.
Better to stop the terrorists getting on the plane in the first place, but stun-guns used by air marshals, with bio security devices to prevent the weapon being used by the wrong person may be a solution. Locking the cabin securely is so sensible, you have to wonder why it hasn't already been done? CCTV would have to be used to monitor the passengers, and knockout gas would have to be used in the event of an incident. I'd rather be gassed than crashed. If these measures are introduced the likelihood of them ever having to be used decreases.
Colin MacDonald, Scotland
Sealed cockpits would make hijacking a thing of the past. We now need to view airplanes as potential weapons of destruction and should make it impossible for terrorists to gain control of them.
As a Yank who has lived in the UK, I would say the idea of armed pilots is preposterous. Guns cause far more problems than they resolve and the complications multiply when you add an airliner, passengers, pressurised cabin and the need for a safe landing. This is another knee-jerk reaction dreamed up by gun-toting idiots.
A better solution would be to have the pilots' compartment sealed off from the passengers' compartment. A canister of sleeping gas could be released into the passenger compartment in event of trouble. When the hijackers wake up they will be in jail!
Drew, Pittsburgh, USA
Yes, pilots should have weapons to defend themselves, their passengers and their aircraft. In fact, passengers should also be able to carry weapons just as they do when in other public places. The concealed carrying of handguns by citizens has reduced, not increased, crime. A terrorist could expect violent and sudden opposition as soon as he declared his intentions.
Yes of course, and while we're at it lets give guns to bus conductors, train drivers and lollipop ladies. The answer is simply no. The only answer is to reduce the risks by increasing pre-flight security and restricting access to the cockpit. Arming civilians is just not an option. It would mean automatically that weapons would be on the plane for people to make use of one way or another!
Mary Miller, USA
Why not have non-fatal weapons such as CS spray or pepper spray, similar to those weapons used by some police forces. Then at least we will not lose an aircraft.
The pilot ought to be flying the plane, not worrying about security and defence. If a situation requires an armed pilot to intervene it has already probably got out of control. The time it will take to respond and get out the cockpit is too long. More immediate action is required. A visibly armed guard is a sitting duck target and not too good for passenger relaxation. One or two specially trained and screened undercover guards strategically placed around the plane would be much better. They could react quickly, effectively and have a greater chance of stopping any problems, particularly if hijackers are only armed with knives.
It's a question of balance. We all have to be careful of knee jerk reactions. Long-term measures should take into account the fact that an airline is a business. I'd suggest any policy should be applied to all airlines. Sealing the cockpit would work but only if it was on all planes. Broadly lots of alternative solutions are available. Each should be given due consideration, without the emotional overhead we are currently experiencing. I'd argue that if someone really wants to hijack a plane they will find a way no matter what. Let's not forget that these people are not afraid of suicide.
In my heart I believe that if the pilots had been armed the planes used in the attacks would never have made it to their targets. The only way they did was due to the terrorists killing the pilots first. We should have trained people armed with bullets that would kill the hijackers and not damage the plane.
It would be much safer to have guards on a plane armed with advanced stun guns. Then a missed shot would be less likely to see everyone sucked out of the windows or suffocated.
I believe the pilots should be securely locked into the cockpit. It is ridiculous that terrorists and hostage-takers can simply saunter into the cockpit with a knife.
The airline industry in the US is aching and taxpayers' money is being squandered. The industry traditionally has not taken full responsibility for safety on planes and in airports.
The money is best spent where it makes sense economically and in the interest of safety.
Airline pilots are highly trained and responsible individuals. I am sure they can be further trained to use a firearm. But we should think about whether a conventional gun is the safest weapon considering the dangers with firing a gun inside a pressurised cabin. Maybe electronic stun guns could be used, followed by a knock out injection once the terrorist is under control?
Can we have a more sensible solution that involves securing the cabin door and making sure that only authorised personnel can access the cabin during flight?
I can't see a problem with air marshals being employed, but how would that stop the terrorist who claims to have a bomb on board? Armed pilots are a good idea, if they're happy with it, and they receive training in how to use their weapons without hurting any passengers, puncturing the aircraft structure or having them used against them. Locked cockpit doors are also a good idea.
Stewart, London, UK
I think the idea of arming airline employees is worth pursuing. While some may argue against this, I think that this is really the only option we have to prevent any such catastrophe from ever happening again.
People need to be able to defend themselves. We need to feel secure. My father was a fighter pilot and he carried a .22. Many pilots would be happy to go through training and I think it is imperative considering the situation at hand. I don't think a pilot feels that it is his/her only job duty to just fly a plane. They are responsible for many lives with or without terrorism. Military-type survival training for such a situation would cover all the aspects pilots would need to defend themselves without endangering the lives of passengers. I'm on their side on this one. It is not like handing a dummy a handgun. Pilots are intelligent and capable of handling a great deal of pressure.
Why not lock the cockpits automatically before take off and open them after landing?
There is no chance that a pilot would have the guts to shoot a man coming towards him with a knife. Surely a stun gun would be more appropriate. Putting a gun on board an aircraft is just asking for trouble and I think people would stop flying. Yes the world has gone mad but surely this is another step towards chaos!
I do not agree with anyone carrying a gun on a plane for obvious reasons. I think an alternative that should be considered is the use of stun guns that would disable a hijacker without the risk of causing damage to the aircraft.
Sealed flight decks are the obvious solution. I am amazed that this is not already the industry standard.
Sorry, but I refuse to accept the on-going line that guns = safety.
Nicholas Arnold, UK
I know that I personally do not want armed guards hovering over me when I go on a long haul flight. However, in light of the tragedy it would be much more understandable than ever before.
Not guns, due to the obvious flight safety implications, but why not some other anti-personnel weaponry, suited for the purpose? Stun grenade, pepper spray, CS gas - all of which need not be hand held, but possibly released remotely - would perhaps go some way to solving the dilemma.
An armed terrorist on a flight deck is one situation few have experienced, and any discussion/solution regarding this issue ought to include someone who has at least experienced the situation first hand.
James Dawkins, England
I think there should be CCTV in planes which are more susceptible for hijacking e.g. near Washington.
Yes but not with firearms. Give them (and the rest of the crew) gas canisters and make the passengers sign to say they won't sue the airline if they suffer collaterally from a discharge. Alternatively why not build chloroform into the air conditioning plant and subdue hijackers and passengers alike? At least you'd have no panicking.
Robert Scurr, UK
Interesting that many of those who are against flying are from the USA. Does this reflect the fact that in Europe we are more used to the terrorist threat? My thoughts are with all those around the world who have suffered as a result of what happened on 11 September. God Bless.
If pilots are to carry firearms how will that be any different to the average citizen being allowed to carry a firearm?
At least when you fire off a round on the ground there is no risk of rapid decompression.
Yes pilots have the right to defend themselves BUT allowing them to carry a firearm is NOT the answer.
What would a pilot do with a gun when faced by terrorists with explosive strapped around their waists?
If airlines want to increase safety on board planes then adding deadly weapons is not the way to do it. If pilots really feel the need for further protection why not issue tazer stun guns which have been proved to be far more effective and safer than conventional guns.
Liz Tring, UK
Guns inside a pressurised cabin?
Are they mad?
The pilot's job is to fly planes, not to be security personnel. It takes a lot of skill to successfully shoot inside a airline cabin flying at 30,000 feet. If you miss and hit a window instead, the plane could depressurise causing it to plummet thousands of feet whilst starving the passengers of oxygen. If you must have armed guards on planes, they should be the employed by airports or government-run air transport authorities, not the airlines.
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