I asked Robert MacLean — a former air marshal who has been quoted in the Washington Times and on this blog — what we need to do to improve air security. Here is his thoughtful response, which deserves your attention:
After 9/11, immediately putting thousands of air marshals on flights was the right decision. But now, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) misuse of the air marshal program as a visual deterrent is one of the worst threats to aviation security right now.
With the current checkpoint bypass and pre-boarding policies that TSA and the airline companies insist on, an air marshal team is going to get ambushed and their weapons will be used to take another plane down. Air marshals right now are sitting ducks with the current strategy.
All flight decks should be bullet-proof and have a shotgun with buckshot ammo — not the current forty-caliber pistols that will over-penetrate and hit an innocent passenger or easily get wrested away by a terrorist. The shotguns can be mounted in solenoid-release brackets just like police patrol cars have in their front seats. If a terrorist tries to force himself into the flight deck, his arm will be blown off at close quarters, and birdshot will harmlessly scatter down the aisle.
It is a lot safer to permanently mount a shotgun in every locked flight deck than to have thousands of pilots with handguns roaming around airports with the possibility of the handguns being lost or stolen.
Every time a pilot unlocks the flight deck door to use the lavatory or get food and drink, the aircraft is in danger. The forward areas need to be protected with the same ingenious steel cable barriers United Airlines uses.
If you do this on all aircraft, you can then put air marshals on the ground, gathering intelligence and conducting investigations to prevent terrorists from boarding, or sneaking bombs onto aircraft.
Air Marshals should then only be deployed during high threat conditions.
These changes are likely to never happen for the following reasons:
1. The municipalities and airline industry will never allow the TSA to tell them how air marshals will bypass security checkpoints or board aircraft, respectively. The airline industry is more worried about liability and prefers that everyone on the plane (including the flight attendants) know who the air marshals are, and where they are sitting. As evident in the NW flight 327 incident, only the pilot in command should know who the air marshals are — and should have the final say as to when they should break cover. When all the flight attendants know who the air marshals are, air marshals are likely to be quickly outed in a hostage situation.
2. The pilots are very happy with their federally issued handguns and badges. It will be very difficult to get them to hand them back over without them screaming about the 2nd Amendment.
3. Other than United Airlines, other airlines do not want to install these steel cable gates because it “alarms the passengers” — or they do not want to spend the money to purchase them and have them installed.
4. Having more air marshals working on the ground in airports, trying to prevent dangerous people or weapons from getting on the plane, is going to take measures that minority groups will misconstrue as “profiling.” Unfortunately, our system of justice prevents well-trained and experienced law enforcement officers from using race and national origin along with behavior factors to interview or detain would-be terrorists.
By the way, I asked Mr. MacLean about a concern I have expressed here before: the tendency of some flight patterns to come near skyscrapers. I said in this 2006 post:
As a downtown pedestrian, I have often noticed how absurdly close jet airliners seem to come to downtown’s skyscrapers. I once asked a friend who is an amateur pilot how long it would take for one of these airliners to divert from its flight pattern and crash into L.A.’s tallest skyscraper. He said twenty seconds.
To me, it looks like it would take only ten. But even twenty seconds seems like a very short time. Terrorists could take over a cockpit and crash the plane into the tower before most passengers even knew what was happening.
I asked Mr. MacLean: if a terrorist planned to take over a plane in Los Angeles at the point in its flight path when it came closest to skyscrapers, how long would it take? He said that for planes taking off from LAX headed eastbound, it would require less than a minute — but such flight patterns are very rare. Most planes take off headed over the ocean, which would require 5 minutes of control by the terrorists. What about planes circling downtown for a final approach to touchdown? I asked. He said that for a takeover during a final approach, “you would need at least 1 minute . . . depending on the vector for approach.”
So rest easy. No passengers would possibly allow terrorists to control a plane for a minute — right? (Yes, it’s sarcasm. In one minute most passengers probably would still be trying to process what was happening.)
But, Mr. MacLean pointed out, there are airplane terrorism scenarios that don’t require terrorists to board a regularly scheduled flight, present I.D., and take over the plane by force. But he suggested that I contact other experts about this alternate scenario. I have done so — so keep reading over the coming days.
More to come from other air marshals and other knowledgeable people on these and related issues. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: “Buck shot” has been changed to “birdshot” at Mr. MacLean’s request.