Two passengers from first class sprang up. Brandishing pistols, they yelled at the terrorist to put the knife down, and when he didn't, they fired, knocking him to the floor. Then they held him down and handcuffed him, screaming, "Police, don't move!" They ordered the other passengers to put their hands on their heads and looked over the cabin, guns poised, until they were satisfied that the threat was over.
Fortunately, this situation wasn't real. It was an exercise on a grounded wide-body Delta L-1011 at the Federal Air Marshal training facility here, on May 16. The terrorist was an actor; the ammunition was paint balls; dummies occupied most of the seats, and the only passengers were a handful of reporters, invited by the Transportation Department to observe air marshal training exercises.
The message from the Transportation Department was obvious: Skilled air marshals-not pilots armed with guns-should be the last line of defense aboard commercial airliners. In fact, just five days after these exercises, Transportation Security Administration Director John Magaw announced the department's decision to bar pilots from carrying guns.
"It's clear in my mind, when I weigh all of the pros and cons, pilots should not have firearms in the cockpit," Magaw told the Senate Commerce Committee on May 21. "If something does happen on that plane, they really need to be in control of that aircraft, whether it's getting it on the ground, [or] whether it's maneuvering it so it knocks people off balance that are causing the problem."
Yet by inviting reporters to view the air marshal training program, the Transportation Department also sent another message: The department has become much more shrewd in delivering controversial policy decisions. Congress passed the airport security legislation last November. Ever since then, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his department have received a tremendous amount of scrutiny over the deadlines they must meet to comply with that law (such as installing bomb-detection systems at all U.S. airports by December 31, 2002) and the policy decisions they must make (such as whether pilots can carry handguns and whether airport security screeners can join a union).
Indeed, Mineta found himself in a firestorm of criticism last fall when he candidly remarked that his department might not be able to meet a January deadline to begin checking 100 percent of passenger bags. (As it turned out, the department did meet that deadline.) But in May, by demonstrating to the press exactly how skilled and well-trained its air marshals are, Transportation was deftly making its case that these marshals are the best last line of defense in the air.
Transportation also invited the press to witness these marshals' skills at the firing range. In one drill, a group of trainees stood 15 yards from their targets. After a signal sounded, each trainee fired two shots to the chest and one to the head, reloaded, and fired another two shots to the chest and one to the head-all in just a few seconds. The instructors were proud to tell the press that the air marshals have the highest shooting qualification standards of all law enforcement agencies. "We are going to stop the threat," said one senior instructor. "That is our rule of engagement."
Despite their impressive shooting skills, air marshals do have one noticeable shortcoming: There simply aren't enough of them. While the number of marshals stood at fewer than 50 before September 11, that figure has since exploded to a reported 2,000 (the Transportation Department maintains that the actual number is classified). But even with this increase, air marshals-who usually work in pairs or in groups of three or more-still sit on just a fraction of the nation's 35,000 daily flights.
And for that reason, many members of Congress believe that armed pilots are a much better last line of defense. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., introduced legislation that would reverse the Transportation Department's decision and allow pilots to carry guns. Burns points out that in publicized aviation incidents since September 11 (such as the attempt by suspected terrorist Richard Reid to blow up an American Airlines flight in December), air marshals were nowhere to be found, and it was passengers and flight attendants who actually subdued the threat. "We place our lives in the hands of pilots every time we board a flight," Burns said, "so it only makes sense that we provide them with the tools and options they need to safely and effectively do their job."
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also has a bill in his committee that would reverse the department's recent decision. "We now face a possible situation where the Department of Defense may be forced to make the difficult decision of having our own Air Force shoot down a plane of innocent passengers due to a terrorist takeover," he said. "I strongly believe that under these new circumstances, we must allow trained and qualified pilots to serve as the last line of defense against such a potential disaster."
The Air Line Pilots Association, which supports arming pilots, says that there are other reasons why pilots should be the last line of defense. For example, it notes, armed pilots can do one thing that air marshals cannot: defend the aircraft from inside the cockpit. In addition, the association maintains that installation of enhanced cockpit doors on U.S. airliners will not be completed until April 2003.
But air marshal officials contend that their numbers are much higher than most people think, and while they aren't on board every flight, the threat of their presence is a deterrent. "Part of what we are trying to do is keep our adversaries guessing," said Greg McLaughlin, deputy director of the Federal Air Marshal Service. "I will guarantee you that they know we exist, and they don't want to run into us at high altitudes."
Moreover, the administration, the airlines, and several members of Congress contend that bringing more guns onto a plane doesn't make much sense. How safe will it be for thousands of pilots to carry firearms inside American airports? What happens if those guns get into the wrong hands? And can pilots be proficient and judicious enough if they have to use them? "We have cited the unintended consequences of arming pilots with firearms and the potential dangers posed to innocent passengers and crew members," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the major U.S. airlines. "The fortified cockpits, combined with the air marshals, provide adequate onboard protection."
Indeed, there are plenty of doubts about the quality of training that pilots would receive. The air marshal training program, for instance, lasts between 12 and 15 weeks, six of them spent at the proving grounds in Atlantic City, the rest in airports and with U.S. airlines. By comparison, the Air Line Pilots Association says it envisions a firearms training program for pilots that would last only four or five days, with annual proficiency training.
Although the Transportation Department doesn't want pilots to carry guns, it is currently deliberating whether to allow pilots and flight attendants to wield less-than-lethal weapons, such as tasers and stun guns. According to one aviation lobbyist who wished to remain anonymous, these weapons make much more sense than guns for pilots and flight attendants because they don't inflict irreversible harm. Nevertheless, there are some concerns about these less-than-lethal weapons. "If managed properly, these can be great tools," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. "That said, every one of these technologies, if not used properly, can be very harmful, and all have the potential for abuse."
But for now, it seems, air marshals will serve as the last line of defense on American airplanes-and to quell other types of disturbances. For example, during another exercise aboard the Delta L-1011, an actor playing a drunken passenger harassed a flight attendant-"Flight attendant, grab me a drink.... Come on, wench. I told you, one every five minutes"-and then began to assault her.
A man jumped up, identified himself as an air marshal, and told the passenger to stop his abusive behavior. Ignored, the marshal seized the drunk, threw him to the floor, and handcuffed him. For transportation reporters unaccustomed to this kind of excitement and violence at work, it was an impressive sight.
National Journal staff correspondent Louis Jacobson contributed to this article.