March 7, 2003
Frustration may be behind pilot's ax remark at Eppley
BY HENRY J. CORDES
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Put yourself in an airline pilot's shoes and consider how it feels to be asked to take off those shoes - or a belt - at the airport security checkpoint.
You're the one who wears the uniform and flies the plane. You could crash the thing if you really wanted to do some serious harm.
There's even a fire ax right inside the cockpit. And soon, by congressional mandate, you'll be able to carry a firearm.
So why are you being screened, probed and searched to make sure you're not carrying a sharp pair of scissors?
For many pilots, it's "particularly frustrating" that they and their flight crews must undergo the same security screenings that passengers do, said John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.
Such frustration may be behind the incident that resulted in the arrest of an American Airlines pilot at Eppley Airfield.
The 36-year-old pilot, of suburban St. Louis, had passed through the federal security checkpoint, but members of his flight crew were still being searched.
He became upset over the screening process and made comments to the Transportation Security Administration screeners.
He then asked an Eppley police officer manning the checkpoint to accompany him to the cockpit so he could show the officer something. The officer declined.
City Prosecutor Marty Conboy said the pilot told the officer he had an ax in the cockpit and could chop off the officer's head if he wanted to. That was the comment that led to the pilot being detained and ticketed for disorderly conduct.
Conboy said he will decide by next week whether the pilot's words and actions were worthy of a disorderly conduct charge.
One of his considerations will be whether the pilot intended to threaten the officer, or was making a point about the irony of the flight crew being searched for weapons when it has access to a fire ax in the cockpit.
The pliot could not be reached for comment.
Mazor, the union spokesman, said he doesn't know the details of what happened Wednesday in Omaha. But he said it wouldn't be the first time a pilot has been arrested for remarks made in frustration at security checkpoints.
"There have been a couple of incidents where pilots have made remarks like, 'I have a fire ax in the cockpit,' or 'I could crash the plane anytime I want, so why are you looking for tweezers on me?' and they ended up in the same situation," he said.
"It goes to the frustration pilots and flight attendants feel for having to go through that level of security."
Nonetheless, Mazor said, the union has advised members not to get into arguments with security screeners and to comply with all requests.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration in Washington, D.C., dismissed suggestions there is widespread discontent among pilots about security procedures.
Pilots, he said, are among those most supportive of the new security measures put in place in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The procedures are "making the pilots, their crew and their passengers that much safer," Turmail said.
"And most pilots would tell you they would not agree with behavior making threatening comments to screeners and law enforcement officials at a checkpoint."
There has been talk in Washington for years about creating special secure badges for flight crews and subjecting them to a different level of security.
Mazor said that while TSA officials have expressed interest in the concept, there has been little action. Turmail said those discussions are continuing.
The issue of what security checks will be required of pilots also could come under more discussion, now that Congress has mandated that specially trained pilots be allowed to carry firearms. The first class of pilots will go into training next month.
Regardless, even if the pilot was upset with current security policies for flight crews, there was no reason to voice his frustrations the way he did, said Don Smithey, Eppley's chief executive. The Omaha screeners were just doing their job.
"The federal rules are the federal rules," Smithey said. "If he has a problem, it can't be resolved in Omaha."