4 May 2002

Pilots and cabin crew clash over cockpit security

By David Rennie in Washington

A heated debate over whether to arm airline pilots has triggered a row between America's pilots and cabin crews, with stewards and stewardesses warning pilots against locking themselves away in fortified cockpits and leaving hijackers to massacre everyone else in the plane.

The 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants has come out against the pilots' campaign to be armed, unless their colleagues on the flight deck were required to leave the cockpit and defend the rest of the plane.

The AFA is also calling for its members to be armed with their own non-lethal weapons, and training in unarmed combat.

Dawn Deeks, an AFA spokesman, said yesterday that airlines had an "attitude problem" towards stewards and stewardesses, who were far more than flying waiters and waitresses.

"People get bogged down in visible things like serving drinks, but don't underestimate cabin crew. We know that any threat to the cockpit comes from the cabin. Since September 11, we know flight attendants don't sit quietly, they fight. Before somebody even gets to the cockpit, passengers and flight attendants are going to fight, there are going to be dead and injured people in the back," she said.

More than 20,000 airline pilots signed a petition demanding to be armed with handguns, which was delivered to members of Congress on Thursday. Pilots argue that even the new fortified cockpit doors fitted to airliners could be breached by a determined hijacker, and that only guns provide an adequate last line of defence.

A safety expert from Boeing testified to a congressional committee this week that an airliner would survive one or two bullet holes in its fuselage without any serious loss of cabin pressure.

Patricia Friend, the AFA's international president, said: "The flight attendants are against guns being put in the cockpit if the pilots are the only ones with a means to defend the passengers and us. We must advocate that pilots be required to act in our defence in a threatening situation, rather than locking and staying inside the cockpit while flight attendants are harmed."

Opponents of guns in the cockpit have argued that the weapons could be wrestled from pilots, and that hijacks are best prevented by professional "sky marshals" and better security on the ground.

The Bush administration's transport secretary, Norman Mineta, has said he would prefer to see pilots armed with non-lethal stun guns. The newly formed Transport and Security Administration is due to announce a final decision shortly.