When an agitated passenger kicked in the cockpit door on a United Airlines flight to Buenos Aires earlier this month, the incident reignited an emotional debate: Should pilots be armed?
Congress voted after the Sept. 11 attacks to allow screened and specially trained pilots to carry a gun. Polls showed Americans were overwhelmingly in favor - by more than 75 percent. Surveys of pilots indicated they were equally enthusiastic.
But lawmakers attached a set of as-yet unmet conditions - including approval from the Department of Transportation and the airlines. That has kept the issue unresolved and simmering behind the scenes.
Now, pilot advocates are intensifying their fight to try to speed the approval process.
They contend, as the last line of defense in the event of another terrorist attack on an airliner, that they should have the resources to protect themselves, their passengers, and their crew. Even without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) yet, United Airlines will start training its pilots to use stun guns next month.
But opponents are just as passionately concerned that the presence of any firearm in the cockpit could create as many safety and security concerns as it potentially could mitigate.
"When you talk about handguns, it's like talking about abortion: There are some very hard lines that have been drawn in the sand," says United Airlines Capt. Herb Hunter, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "But we believe it should be a viable option. When all else fails, the people who are sitting at the controls of the aircraft have to be able to defend those controls."
Before Sept. 11, the prospect of a firearm in the cockpit was almost unthinkable.
Aviation safety experts feared that if a gun went off, it could pierce the fuselage and depressurize the cabin, destroy equipment, or worse, injure an innocent passenger.
Those same concerns motivate many of the current opponents, including the Air Transport Association (ATA), the major airlines' trade group.
"It would create a dangerous vigilantism in the sky," says ATA spokesman Michael Wascom. "It just raises too many unknowns."
Mr. Wascom maintains that increased security measures on the ground, the further reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the presence of armed air marshals on selected flights will provide enough security so the pilot can focus on flying the plane, if there is another incident.
Some pilots agree with the ATA, although polls show they are in the minority.
"Arming pilots with weapons of any kind ... creates enormous logistical and security problems, poses a tremendous distraction for pilots to perform the duties they are really trained for, and risks far more in potential injury to personnel and damage to aircraft than would be warranted for deterrence of hijacking," American pilot Gert-Jan Visser wrote to the FAA, which is taking comments on the issue.
But many pilots consider such arguments naive and misleading. United Capt. Bob Guida notes that not every flight has air marshals, and that even the best security can be breached.
He believes highly trained terrorists could easily smuggle enough plastic explosives to open even a newly reinforced door.
"It would lead to either a World Trade Center repeat or a shoot-down by a US fighter," he says. "We don't want either to happen, so the president should give us the tools to defend our cockpits."
Pilots who advocate being armed also say ammunition exists that could stop an intruder, but not damage the fuselage or shatter the windshield.
"There is also sentiment out there that if you put a gun in the cockpit, the guy can get it and use it against you," says Captain Hunter. "We maintain that is beyond ridiculous. If he gets in the cockpit, he's already got everything he needs right there [to wreak havoc]."
But opponents of arming pilots point to the recent United incident as a reason for caution.
After the passenger kicked in the cockpit door, one of the pilots knocked him out with the blunt end of an ax. If he'd been armed, the passenger could have been killed.
Hunter says that scenario would have been unfortunate, but after Sept. 11, a new climate exists.
"If someone comes in, you don't have time to look at him and analyze, 'Is this guy crazy, drunk, or a terrorist?' " says Hunter. "All you know is that he's coming through the door and he probably intends to do harm, and maybe, just maybe, he plans to take your aircraft and turn it into a weapon. In my mind you do as much damage as possible - including using lethal force."
Yet Hunter and other advocates say that not every pilot would be armed - only those volunteers who were properly screened and trained by law enforcement.
The idea is to create another layer of security for terrorists to take into account. "It's part of an overall layered strategy: The more options there are, the more difficult it will be to plan against them," says American Airlines Capt. Phillip Beall, chairman of the Committee for the Armed Defense of the Cockpit.
The ATA, meanwhile, says it's willing to study whether nonlethal weapons like stun guns would be appropriate.
United Airlines has already purchased more than 1,000 stun guns called "Tasers," which can disable someone from a few seconds to a few minutes.
But critics say that one stun gun would do little to stop four highly trained and determined hijackers, since they only disable people temporarily. Still, Hunter calls them a good first step. "There must be some kind of defensive system for the cockpit. Does it have to be handguns? No," he says. "Should it be an option? Yes, definitely."