Whom Do You Trust More: Pilots or a Door?

Aaron Greenberg /

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told Congress whom she trusts on February 15 when she responded to Congressman (and former Federal Flight Deck Officer) Chip Cravaack’s (R–MN) question at a House hearing. The exchange is exemplified with these remarks:

Cravaack: “Is a Federal Flight Deck Officer the last line of defense for our travelling public?”

Napolitano: “I think the armed cockpit door actually is.”

The term “armed cockpit door” must have been a mistake; she likely was referring to the armored or reinforced cockpit doors installed after 9/11. However, the mistake illustrates that she doesn’t understand the difference between a merely passive defense mechanism (a stronger door) and an active defense mechanism (a firearm that can wound or kill the attacker). That lack of understanding is likely a large part of why the Administration is trying to strangle this effective and cheap last line of defense.

After all, Federal Flight Deck Officers are estimated to be on five times more planes then air marshals. They are mostly ex-military and have prior experience with firearms. Finally, they are already in positions of immense trust—if Secretary Napolitano doesn’t trust them with a gun, why does she trust them with a plane? Not to mention that despite long-standing concerns about accidental discharges of firearms, the only incident of accidental discharge was a result of Transportation Security Administration Rules.

To be fair to the Secretary, that isn’t the reasoning she gives, though hers is only slightly less illogical. She asserts that between the reinforced door and the department’s new “risk-based” system, the Flight Deck Officer program is no longer needed.

That reasoning can be refuted in three ways. First, it assumes that the TSA’s “risk-based” system is effective at preventing terrorists and those with weapons from boarding. This is plainly false, with many stories of the lapses in the TSA’s screening process. Second, it is assuming that the cockpit door is strong enough to withstand determined terrorists. Finally, it assumes that even if the risk-based system was effective and the door was strong enough, having armed pilots wouldn’t be worth it as an additional security measure.

The simple fact is that the Federal Flight Deck Officers program is exactly the kind of program Homeland Security should be pursuing. It is cheap, involves stakeholders taking primary responsibility, and provides a great last line of defense. The United States needs to emphasize programs like this and intelligence gathering instead of the current emphasis on screening.

Aaron Greenberg is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm