Jewish World Review May 29, 2002 / 18 Sivan, 5762

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Taking on common sense | John Magaw, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, took on common sense and public opinion when he told Congress he will not permit commercial airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit.

An overwhelming majority of airline pilots want to carry guns, and a large majority of airline passengers think they ought to be able to, for the simple reason that if the hijackers don't have guns, and the pilots do, the odds on a successful hijacking plunge to near zero.

On the other hand, if hijackers have guns, and the pilots don't, the odds on a successful hijacking soar to near certitude.

Magaw is pursuing an approach to "security" which enhances prospects for the hijackers, at maximum possible expense to taxpayers.

Magaw is pushing a massive expansion of the air marshal program. The number of air marshals is classified. There were thought to be about 40 on Sept. 11. Estimates of the number of new marshals TSA hopes to train range between 2,000 and 4,000.

Since there are about 35,000 flights each day departing from or arriving at U.S. airports, and air marshals tend to work in pairs, hijackers would have to be unlucky to be on a flight with air marshals.

Or maybe lucky. A vast expansion of anything overnight results in a dimunition in quality. Imagine what would happen to the quality of play in the NFL if it were expanded to 1,000 teams. A poorly trained air marshal can be worse than none at all.

The key to success for a hijacker is to get weapons onto the airplane. Since screeners miss about 40 percent of weapons in tests, this may not be so tough. But suppose screening got better. Then the best way for hijackers to get a gun would be to identify the air marshal and disarm him. Then the hijackers would have a gun, and the pilots wouldn't.

The odds on this happening are remote. But they are higher than the odds that hijackers without guns could overcome pilots who had them.

Magaw has two public arguments against arming pilots. The first is that a pilot might go berserk. The second is that a wild shot from a pilot could puncture the skin of an aircraft, causing decompression. Both are ridiculous.

Pilots are thoroughly screened. We can be more sure that they are sane, and who they say they are, than we can be sure that no imposter has infiltrated an air marshal force expanded a hundredfold overnight. And a pilot is already at the controls of the aircraft. He doesn't need a gun to fly it into a building. If there is a risk of a pilot going berserk, it isn't aggravated much by giving him a gun.

Bullets fired into the skin can cause decompression, and that would be bad. But pilots would be shooting at hijackers only if they were trying to break into the cockpit, that is, at a range of about a foot or less. Few people miss at that distance. And if frangible aluminum or plastic bullets were used, they'd break up on impact and cause no ricochets.

A vastly expanded air marshal program is a danger to the republic, even if it doesn't turn out to be a danger to airline passengers, because it diverts precious resources from higher purposes to lower. Air marshals can provide little additional protection than can be provided by arming pilots and reinforcing cockpit doors. And lawmen shuttling back and forth on airplanes cannot put their skills to use in areas of greater need.

A frightfully large number of applicants for the air marshal program have come from the Border Patrol, which already is understaffed.

"There's been a flood of applicants," Bud Tuffly, the Border Patrol union chief for the Tucson sector, told the Arizona Republic. Half of the first air marshal training class after Sept. 11 was made up of former Border Patrol agents.

Magaw's marshals will provide little protection for airline passengers that could not be provided by arming pilots. But stripping hundreds of the best agents from the Border Patrol gravely will weaken security at our borders. John Magaw is too busy building an empire to see the big picture. With enemies like him, Osama bin Laden doesn't need many friends.

Comment on JWR contributor Jack Kelly's column by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jack Kelly