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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 8/9/02 ]

Not all airline pilots want to be armed

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Washington -- Despite an aggressive push by pilots unions to allow guns in the cockpit, thousands of the rank-and-file do not want to carry firearms.

"What happens if a weapon gets breached in the secure area -- What are we going to do?" asked Carmen Villani, an American Airlines pilot who flies the route of Flight 77, one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11. "I haven't yet been convinced it's the most viable option."

Villani, who attended five memorial services for co-workers after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, said the campaign to arm pilots fails to address some critical issues, such as the problems that could arise if pilots carry their guns at all times.

"Is there really the need to bring this [weapon] to hotel rooms, to restaurants, when we're on layovers?" he asked

Although in the minority, several thousand pilots do not support arming pilots, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, which has polled its members on the subject.

Edward Davidson, a commercial airline pilot for 24 years, said that safety efforts should focus on securing the cockpit.

"Having a firearm in the cockpit creates a temptation ... for flight crews to open that cockpit door in dangerous and chaotic situations," he told a Senate panel recently. "Those are precisely the times a cockpit door should remain closed."

Davidson, who heads flight safety efforts for Northwest Airlines, also said that legislation to arm pilots could "inadvertently draw a road map straight to the cockpit for terrorists seeking lethal weapons on board the aircraft."

Some flight attendants also are worried. "I'm not so sure I'd feel comfortable flying with some of these guys being armed," said Lena Brown, an American Airlines flight attendant for the past 10 years. "Some of them have real issues with control, and then you give them a gun?"

Brown, who was called the morning of Sept. 11 to work on one of the hijacked flights but couldn't get to the airport in time, said she is worried about passengers getting hurt.

"What if you've just got a crazy person and he tries to come through the cockpit door? ... What are you going to do? You're going to shoot on sight," she said. "And then this guy who just happened to be off his medication ... could die."

ALPA, the largest pilots union, commissioned a poll of its nearly 67,000 members earlier this year that showed 72 percent in favor of arming pilots, 20 percent against and 8 percent undecided. The Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 14,300 pilots, says that 83 percent of its members favor the measure.

But Villani said that those number seem a little high. Talking with fellow pilots and flight attendants, "I haven't seen this overwhelming support," he said.

The pilots unions have lobbied aggressively on the issue, visiting lawmakers and testifying before Congress in hopes of swaying votes. In addition, the National Rifle Association has launched a full-scale campaign to push the measure, often saying that having guns would have given the Sept. 11 pilots "a fighting chance."

Last month, the House voted overwhelmingly to let airline pilots carry guns. A similar measure is gaining momentum in the Senate. Backers are especially hopeful now that Sen. Fritz Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, announced that he would not block a vote despite his opposition to the bill.

Hollings has maintained that sealing cockpit doors, not arming pilots, is the key to aviation safety.

The White House held a similar view until last month, when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that the department is re-examining the issue.

Flight attendants decided to support the bill once lawmakers added specific provisions on self-defense training for the flight crew.

"It didn't make sense for us to support arming pilots when they weren't putting any sort of defensive capabilities or training in the cabin," said Dawn Deeks, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants from 26 airlines. "Never again will passengers and flight attendants sit quietly while someone attempts to break into the cockpit . . . so it makes sense to train the flight attendants to lead the fight."

Since Sept. 11, flight attendants have had little instruction in defense, Deeks said.

"The training that we've received has been so cursory ... totaling on average about two or three extra hours, most of that without any kind of hands-on training," she said. "We really haven't been trained to meet the current threat."

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