Committee Corner
News from ALPA's Committees

Cargo Pilots Win Right To Defend Cockpit

National Security Committee

By Gavin Francis, Freelance Writer
Air Line Pilot,
March 2004, p.23

Within the next few months, U.S. cargo pilots will be able to apply to become Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDOs). Congress has passed legislation amending a law that excluded cargo pilots from the program that authorizes and trains pilots to carry firearms aboard U.S. airliners. Until now, only pilots of passenger airliners were allowed to participate. The amendment was included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that President Bush signed into law in December 2003. The Transportation Security Administration, which administers the FFDO program, will provide the training at the Federal Air Marshal Service’s training academy.

The amendment, which came to life as the Arming Cargo Pilots Against Terrorism Act, was sponsored by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The change in policy that allows cargo pilots to become FFDOs goes a long way toward correcting significant security deficiencies that have left the U.S. airline industry vulnerable to terrorist attacks. ALPA has pushed hard for one level of security for both passenger and cargo operations and is encouraged that cargo pilots will soon be eligible for FFDO training. This development represents a significant enhancement in security for pilots who often fly in transport- category airplanes without secure cockpit doors, due to a questionable exemption that the FAA has granted.

"We’ve been very concerned that the increased security measures that the passenger side of aviation has implemented, and the lack of security augmentation of the cargo carriers, was only going to further increase the level of risk to cargo pilots," says First Officer Dale Roberts, the Gemini Master Executive Council chairman. "That terrorist groups are targeting our industry is well documented. We need these security upgrades as much as the passenger carriers."

Cargo pilots were included in the original bill that created the FFDO program in 2002 as a provision of the Homeland Security Act, but the word "passenger" was later inserted in front of the words "airline pilot" during a House-Senate conference committee, effectively excluding cargo pilots from the program. The eleventh-hour change to the original bill appears to have come about as a result of pressure from cargo carrier managements, some of whom have expressed the belief that weapons in the cockpit would pose a serious risk to the safety and security of flightcrew members and their airplanes.

However, cargo pilots feel that they are especially vulnerable to breaches in security, and many say that any risk associated with a cockpit weapon is nominal compared to the very real and significant threat of terrorism against cargo aircraft and their crews. Intelligence reports indicate that terrorist groups continue to consider the possibility of seizing aircraft used for all-cargo operations to carry out terrorist attacks. According to many security experts, participation in the FFDO program may well be the best defense against a potential terrorist plot involving air piracy.

"In terms of security, the cargo world is vastly different from that of passenger airlines," says Jim Andresakes, an aviation security specialist in ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department. "The level of security that applies to passenger airliners is often much greater than it is for cargo airplanes. This makes cargo operations very attractive targets for terrorist groups."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has implemented a number of measures with regard to the inspection of air cargo intended to increase the security aboard both passenger and all-cargo airliners. However, while improvements have been made, major breaches in security continue to occur.

In September 2003, an individual managed to ship himself from New York to Dallas in an airline cargo crate, eventually aboard an all-cargo carrier, evading existing security measures. He wasn’t discovered until after he’d been delivered to his destination. While he apparently harbored no malicious intent, the incident calls attention to the potential security risks inherent in many all-cargo operations.

"Unlike passenger operations, most cargo operations do not take place within a security identification-display area (SIDA)," says Second Officer Bill McReynolds (FedEx), chairman of the ALPA President’s Committee on Cargo. "Many of the ramps are not required to have the same physical security measures that you would find around passenger airlines. We have to deal with some real vulnerability issues."

In contrast with the passenger airlines, neither passengers nor cabin crewmembers are generally available to help thwart an attack. Furthermore, because many types of cargo necessitate special handling, individuals who are not thoroughly screened are often required aboard cargo flights.

"Some of our flights involve carrying horses, and we need to have horse handlers aboard," says S/O McReynolds. "Often these folks are foreign nationals on flights originating on foreign soil. Having these people on the airplane—and unsupervised—represents a significant risk for cargo pilots."

Although the TSA now has a specific legislative mandate to accept cargo pilots into the FFDO program, the agency is currently assessing how best to carry out this directive. As the procedures and conditions under which cargo pilots operate are often much different from those of their counterparts on passenger airlines, ALPA is working with the TSA to develop a training and implementation program that addresses the specific needs of cargo pilots.

"We’d like the program to remain as consistent as possible," says S/O McReynolds. "We don’t want to see any of the training diluted. However, I think that the TSA will have to address some operational issues."

In fact, some of the most difficult problems associated with successfully implementing the FFDO program in cargo operations grow out of considerations regarding the operational and tactical employment of cargo FFDOs.

"We’re not particularly satisfied with the way that the program is structured right now with regard to our operations," says Capt. Randy Cheston, who serves as the FedEx MEC representative on ALPA’s National Security Committee on FFDO and cargo issues. "The TSA will have to address several major tactical and operational issues, and we’re working closely with the TSA to try to resolve them."

Since the TSA began training pilots in April 2003, it has put an average of 50 pilots through each of the 1-week training sessions required to become a FFDO. In January 2004, the number of classes was increased to two per week.

ALPA leaders still believe that having such a program in place is an absolute necessity for the ongoing security of the U.S. air transportation system, in spite of some shortcomings that the Association is working to correct.

"We are extremely encouraged that this change in the legislation is going to allow us to participate," says Capt. Steve Luckey (Northwest, Ret.) National Security Committee chairman. "But we’d like to see the TSA implement this program more aggressively. We are convinced that this is a crucial piece of the national security puzzle, and we believe that it is essential to avoiding a scenario in which the government will be forced to thwart a hijacking by shooting down a civilian airliner—whether passenger or all-cargo."