Airlines, Pilots Differ Over Armed Crews

Jeff Johnson
July 7, 2008

( — A 20 year old Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) allowing flight crews to be armed for self-defense may offer little protection because some pilots aren't aware of their rights, and most, if not all, airlines prohibit the practice.

FAR 108.11 currently allows flight crews to be armed, "if the person having the weapon is…authorized to have the weapon by the (airline) and the Administrator (of the FAA) and has successfully completed a course of training in the use of firearms acceptable to the Administrator."

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently on track to repeal the regulation in less than two months.

New rules set to take effect November 14 state that "crew members will no longer be allowed to carry arms," according to an internal memo cited by FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto.

Takemoto stressed, "everything is under review" as a result of the September 11 hijackings of four aircraft, three of which were used to attack New York and Washington, D.C.

Capt. John Cox, executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 66,000 pilots at 47 airlines in the U.S. and Canada, said he’s never heard of the regulation allowing pilots to arm themselves.

"I have been an airline pilot for 22 years, and I have been flying airplanes for 32 years," Cox said, "This is the first time I have been made aware of FAR 108.11."

Cox said he knows of no commercial airline that has utilized the regulation.

"I have not seen anybody carrying firearms. I've certainly never been through any training at the airline that I work for," Cox said. "It may have been one of those little known federal regulations. It has not been one practically in use."

Legislation introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) last Friday would prevent the federal government from prohibiting aircrews from arming themselves, effectively eliminating the FAA’s role in the issue and preempting the planned November repeal of the regulation.

House Resolution 2896 would ensure that, "no department or agency of the Federal Government shall prohibit any pilot, copilot, or navigator of an aircraft, or any law enforcement personnel specifically detailed for the protection of that aircraft, from carrying a firearm," according to the legislation.

If that legislation passes, the decision on whether flight crews could be armed would be left solely to the airlines.

"We have never allowed pilots to carry firearms on board," said Jenna Ludgate, spokeswoman for United Airlines. "Pilots are first and foremost pilots and in any emergency situation, they need to by flying the plane."

But United co-pilot Aaron Benedetti, who has received specialized firearms training for pilots from the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada disagrees with his employer’s policy.

"I fully support arming pilots and co-pilots," he said, adding that, if the airline allowed its pilots to carry side arms, "United could once again claim they fly the friendly skies." Benedetti had hoped his employer would be the first airline to arm its cockpit crews following the terrorist attacks.

Asked whether United’s policy might change if Paul’s legislation passes, Ludgate said "We wouldn't allow it because our pilots need to be flying the plane."

Like Benedetti, Dr. Ignatius Piazza, founder of Front Sight, sees it differently.

"If there is a situation where someone is trying to defeat the cockpit door, you have a pilot who is focused on flying the plane, and landing it as soon as possible," he said. "And you have a co-pilot whose responsibility is to protect that door. And he has a gun to do it."

Neither American nor Delta Airlines would comment on their policies regarding armed crews.

A spokesman for Delta explained that it is the company’s policy not to discuss security issues, and the American Airlines spokesman said, "I'm not gonna even go down that road."

But Capt. Paul Nelson, an American Airlines pilot and a reserve duty police officer, thinks his employer is missing an opportunity "to turn this tragedy into triumph and make our domestic skies the safest in the world."

Southwest Airlines pilot, Capt. Mark Donovan, hopes his employer won't follow United’s lead.

"What could be better service than to insure our passengers' safety with an armed and trained pilot?" said Donovan.

Capt. Dennis Vied, who retired after 28 years with TWA, said he is "disgusted" with both the FAA and the airlines for not allowing pilots to defend themselves or their passengers.

"I believe it’s prudent for pilots to be armed for the safety of themselves and their passengers," Vied said. "Hijackers must know they will face armed opposition."

Cox cautiously accepted the idea of armed cockpit crews, but with a caveat. "It would depend on the training course. If the level of training we put forward for pilots is the same exact standard as is in place today for federal law enforcement officers, I'm not gonna feel particularly bad about it," he said. "Anything short of that, I would be much more skeptical about."

While Paul’s legislation would stop the FAA from disarming flight crews, a spokesman said the Texas congressman "would not be comfortable" introducing legislation requiring airlines to let their aviators carry firearms.

Vied hopes public opinion will cause members of Congress to support Paul’s bill, and compel airlines to rethink their policies.

"Let your representatives know that pilots need this capability," said Vied. "Make them aware that we will no longer willingly be victims."