The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) believes both arming some pilots who volunteer through the federal flight deck officer (FFDO) programme and the federal air marshals assigned onboard select flights have proven effective, and remains committed to both schemes.

"In the wake of 9/11/2001, we were able to stand up a professional law enforcement organisation in a matter of months," says Robert Bray, director of the federal air marshal service, who believes bolstering the air marshal after the 2001 attacks "is a success story".

Citing the marshals' involvement in the "nation's multi-layered approach to transportation security", Bray states those employees engage in both law enforcement and security enforcement across all modes of transportation including surface and maritime domains.

He's equally complimentary to the TSA's effort to arm volunteer pilots with guns, noting the "FFDO programme is here to stay". He concludes it is "well received amongst pilots and the aviation industry thanks to the dedicated volunteer pilots".

Armed police
 © Rex Features

But the advocacy group Airline Pilots Security Alliance has historically criticised the TSA's handling of the programme, arguing that redundant psychiatric and background screening already performed in the airline hiring process deters pilots from pursuing the FFDO designation. In testimony dating back to 2004, the group also contended pilots who fly international missions "are summarily rejected from the programme", since agreements allowing FFDOs to carry weapons in other countries have not been negotiated.

Randall Larsen, senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, believes a better return on US taxpayer dollars is to devote more resources to arming pilots versus investing in the air marshal programme. He concludes the chances of an aircraft being transformed into a weapon of mass destruction are diminished similar the events of September 2001 through the dual defenses of armed pilots and fortified cockpit doors.

The US Federal Aviation Administration's mandate requiring carriers to install virtually impenetrable cockpit doors is the most visible reminder of efforts by the US government to thwart attacks similar to those that occurred in 2001.

Yet the argument for a secondary barrier to secure the cockpit while the door is routinely opened for crews to receive a meal, use the lavatory or change out during international flights to create a more fail-safe system remains robust.

US Representative Steve Israel this year again introduced legislation requiring a secondary barrier after attempting to push through a similar bill in 2004. But, no action has been taken on Israel's latest effort since he trumpeted the bill in April.

Larsen states an optimal long-term fix is a separate external entrance on an aircraft for flightcrews. But he believes that is the type of change that could occur in the 2030 year timeline in the aircraft design cycle.

But Israel argues that a "secondary barrier protects the pilots and passengers for a fraction of the installation cost of an in-flight entertainment centre".

Source: Flight International