CEO of the Cockpit #61: There's No Trying to Reason With the Terrorist Season

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Summer is always a cornucopia of weather delays, hot cockpits and long duty periods. If you add in the occasional terrorist scare, you can spend quite a bit of time at the airport or in the airplane.

You usually smell and feel pretty good while doing this, but with yesterday's confiscation of my crew's deodorant, toothpaste and makeup, the long hours we were spending together had a piquant quality.

I've always been in favor of security, safety and all of that, but when everybody on my jet starts looking like those people in the original Batman movie -- the one where the Joker puts poison in random beauty products -- I think we should draw the line at the cockpit door.

After a day and a half into the crisis, the TSA -- with a little prodding from ALPA -- relaxed the requirement for flight crews to throw away their stuff. After all, it was unlikely that other crewmembers would sit back and watch while a pilot, co-pilot or flight attendant calmly assembled a bomb.

Another, bigger reason was closely tied to the fact that I was on my second first officer for this trip. My first one had to go home early because they made him throw away his contact lens solution. No eyes -- no fly.

Day one of the trip was too long to stop and re-buy toiletries and the nine-hour-long, late-night layover was too short. Maybe we'll get cleaned up on day three or we'll go French and wait until we get home.

Now that my crew was trusted not to kill themselves and all of the passengers with their Chapstick, I had the warm, fuzzy feeling that only a short, two-leg day in good weather could provide. We were already done with leg one and were, even now, preparing to go to Las Vegas for a well-deserved long layover.

Gate Hold

The gate agent, who normally would throw the final paperwork at me and wish me a good flight as he slammed the door, this time came in the cockpit and closed the cockpit door behind himself.

"It looks like we're in the 'thwarting evil doer's' mode again," he said. "Some idiot ran through security and they haven't found him yet. I'll close the front door and pull back the jetway but for now the airport is locked down."

Great, there goes my show ticket at the Mandalay Bay. Now I'll never get to see that Pee Wee Herman impersonator.

Kirby, my new, perfectly sighted, contact-lens-non-wearing co-pilot, sipped his coffee and got philosophical all over me and the current situation.

"Just how much safer are we than we were the day after 9/11?" he asked. "I mean, I know we have all kinds of cockpit security procedures that seem to have been put in place to make sure I have a hard time getting to the bathroom while we are flying; but except for hassling passengers and pilots, have we really made the whole situation safer?"

Heck, I don't know. Would it be harder today for a group of people to physically take over a cockpit of an airliner in flight? Definitely, and not because we have a reinforced-steel door of doom, either.

I think passengers are still so spooked by 9/11 that anyone approaching or threatening a cockpit would likely be taken down well before they got near the knob.

I also think that if the passengers saw a person calmly assembling a bomb, they'd break his arms. This has actually happened at least once with that idiot with the disco shoes who was trying to light his Buster Browns with a match. They got all over that guy like moles on grandma and stopped him, literally, in his tracks. No smoking means no smoking, buddy.

Pistol Packing Pilots Provide Piracy Prevention

I began my post 9/11 Odyssey by being against arming pilots. What good would it do, I thought, to arm guys who aren't allowed to open a barricaded cockpit door to shoot anybody? Plus, when they did shoot, they'd be firing into a crowd of First Class passengers. Talk about lawsuit bait ...

I think I was wrong. For some reason, potential hijackers think that being shot by a small caliber weapon is far deadlier and painful than having their arms cut off with a 50 pound, razor-sharp, crash axe. Go figure. They routinely cut helpless people's heads off with sharp implements but don't see the danger for themselves.

I always saw the crash axe as a better close-in defensive weapon, but I'm willing to admit that I should probably be packing. The trouble is that I'm probably not qualified for the program. With all the background checks and whatnot they do before allowing you to begin training, I'm sure I'd fail somewhere along the line before I fired my first training shot.

I've never been very good at shooting things, anyway. Rabid raccoons on my farm have no fear of me; even at point blank range I manage to miss them. If I were to try and shoot an evildoer, I'd probably hit the only air marshal on board by mistake.

This isn't to say that all of the armed pilots out there aren't doing a hell of a job. Using reverse logic, we can say that their record is perfect. The lack of a traditional hijacking proves that the armed pilot program works in the same way that saying the lack of attacks by aliens in flying saucers proves that NORAD is doing their job.

Safe From Ourselves

Our shoes are still being checked for explosives, we are still being scanned for guns and our carry-on bags are still being x-rayed to expose whatever gizmos we may or may not have packed to make ourselves take ourselves somewhere.

Kirby took this occasion to ask for clarification by saying, "Huh?"

We pilots have been searched and have had to go through security just like everybody else since 9/11. There are a few exceptions at big airports where they let crewmembers go through a separate line or an electronic checkpoint; but for the most part, the TSA people are making us go barefoot just like the passengers.

Maybe they have been doing this to us because it would make the terrorists think twice about dressing up like pilots and getting through security that way. That may have been a good reason initially, but in my never-to-be-humble opinion, it makes the pilots look like geeks to the passengers. How can my passengers have the same awe and respect for me as a supreme aviation being if they see my big belly when I have to take my jacket off and the holes in my socks when I doff my shoes?

Kirby Outlines "The Chicago Way"

"I have a solution to all of this security nonsense," said Kirby. "The problem isn't passengers with shampoo or pilots with big-heeled shoes. The real problem is that we really haven't done anything to get at the root cause of all this terrorist crap. We need to make it so distasteful for anybody to mess with airliners that they get sick at the very thought of doing it.

"If a terrorist attacks us or it can be proven that they planned to attack us, we should completely destroy his or her entire village. The problem is that they see no downside to attacking us. If they die, they are assured of heavenly treats. Even if they fail, like they did last week, they have the reward of seeing the entire world go nuts and start throwing away their toothpastes and nail polishes. We have to find a way to make them feel a very deep, very personal hurt every single time they do us harm. The very thought of messing with us should make them quake in their boots and want to throw up."

Oh Gawd ... Another CEO Rant ...

That is a nice dream, albeit a futile one, Kirby. We've been at "war" with terrorism for five years now and haven't actually come out and declared war on anybody.

Even the president has to parse his words so as not to offend anybody, especially the enemy. Most of the 9/11 killers came to us by way of Saudi Arabia, but Dubya routinely has members from the House of Saud over to the farm for a big smooch and a cookout.

Right after the attack on 9/11, I really thought we were going to be together and win this thing. I still think a lot of people are dedicated to winning but a lot more people are dedicated to making sure their discount airline ticket isn't cancelled and the status quo isn't upset too much.

The Air Line Pilots Association isn't doing any better than the government and the airlines when it comes to the war on terror. As a matter of fact, I'm trying to remember a single major issue in the past 10 to 15 years that ALPA didn't roll over on. The important thing with ALPA, I guess, is that they are surviving to "fight another day." At least they say so in their ever-thinner magazine.

"Well," said Kirby, "they did win the fight yesterday to get TSA to stop stealing my Preparation H."

If things keep going this way, even during what the media calls a security win, we're going to need a lot of tubes of that stuff.

The union, the airlines, the government and especially the media all see the security threat as a problem of public relations and spin, not World War Three. That is why the interviews of passengers on the cable news channels the other day were all about their "feelings" at the latest threat. No news on how the enemy will be engaged to make sure this kind of crap never happens again.

The Agent Saves The Day

"Well, at least you're not bitter. That is the important thing," said the voice of the agent behind me at the cockpit door. "Security found their lost lamb and you are good to go. Have a nice trip!"

Kirby let out a relieved "thank god." I'm pretty sure he was sorry he ever got me started on my rant and was hoping it ended here on the ramp.

We pushed back and started the engines as I got over myself and calmed down. The older I get in this business, the sadder I become. We can land a man on the Moon, but we can't keep a person in a dirty robe from separating me from my deodorant and mouthwash.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.