A surprisingly strong House vote to let pilots carry arms on planes is reviving prospects for a similar bill in the Senate and signaling deep concerns with progress in making air travel safer.
The Bush White House, the Transportation Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and most airlines oppose the plan, saying it would detract from the real job of pilots, which is flying the plane. And in the Senate, the committee chairman best positioned to push this issue or block it from reaching the floor is squarely in opposition.
"Pilots should be focused on their primary duty: the safe operation of the plane. Guns are a diversion," says Andrew Davis, a spokesman for Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. It makes no sense to spend billions for new airport security to keep weapons off planes, only to legislate them back on, he adds.
But feelings run just as high on the other side of this issue, which raises difficult questions about using weapons to keep the flying public safe. Supporters of guns in cockpits include some of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, including the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association, which is already telling senators that their vote on this issue will affect endorsements in the next election.
Lawmakers are also closely watching an even more important indicator: public confidence in Washington's ability to protect the skies from a terrorist threat. Following Sept. 11, polls showed more some 3 in 4 Americans favored arming pilots, a sentiment which is shared by an even larger percentage of pilots themselves.
After Wednesday's lopsided 310-to-113 vote in the House, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California a strong gun opponent joined Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire and 11 other senators who are cosponsoring a bill to allow any qualified pilot to carry a gun.
"I think this is the first time I have ever stood with Senator Smith on an issue that has involved guns," Senator Boxer said Wednesday. "However, I have decided that until I am satisfied with the number of air marshals on commercial flights, this bill is a necessity. Indeed, it is a matter of life and death."
Still, whether to arm remains a deeply emotional issue. For those in favor, like the Air Line Pilots Association, it's a simple question of safety and self-defense. They contend that if anyone gets in the cockpit, pilots need the tools protect themselves, their crew, and passengers. Right now, the best weapon they have is the crash ax, which is strapped to the back of the door.
"Since 9/11, we are very aware of anything that is happening anywhere around the cockpit door. We're aware of where the crash ax is, of where our heavy flashlight is, anything that could be used as a weapon," says Al Aitken, a pilot for American Airlines and member of the Allied Pilots Association's Committee for Armed Defense of the Cockpit. "But I don't want to have to use these, because that involves close-in, hand-to-hand conflict that I am likely to lose. If a fight comes, we must win it. That's why we need guns."
With guns, proponents argue, properly screened and trained pilots would be able to stop intruders before they could take over the plane and turn it into a deadly missile.
But opponents contend that arming pilots raises far more safety concerns than it allays. For instance, they argue that if a gun goes off in the cockpit, it could destroy vital equipment, pierce the windshield, or cause other types of damage that could disable the plane. The airlines are also worried about liability if a passenger is accidentally shot in the crossfire.
Opponents believe that other security measures taken since Sept. 11, including the presence of armed federal air marshals on some flights, offer enough security so that guns aren't needed in the cockpit.
Still, recent reports on airport safety indicate that a large percentage of guns and other lethal weapons continue to get through the screening process. At three airports, fake guns and other weapons got past security screeners almost half the time, according to the Transportation Security Administration.