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Mesa Air and Armed Pilots

by Kurt Amesbury, J.D.

October 27, 2001

The following is an exchange I had with a representative of Mesa Air Group on the issue of arming cockpit crews. I provide it for your information to do with as seems fitting. If you choose to contact MAG, please be courteous. I think these people are trying to strike a balance between doing something to make people comfortable flying again (marketing) and not terrifying people who have an unreasoning fear of guns -- whomever they may be -- but do not really understand either the problem or the solution. The one point that Ms. Wilson makes with which I agree is that the odds of a hi-jacking of any particular aircraft is somewhat remote. However, so is the likelihood that one of their aircraft will crash -- and no one treats that issue lightly.

Most importantly, I think the people running the airlines should understand that there are quite a number of people (perhaps enough to make the difference between profitability and bankruptcy) who do not appreciate being rendered helpless while traveling -- especially when there are simple steps (arming the flight deck crew) that can significantly improve the level of protection against hi-jacking.

I just read this on line.

Mesa Air Group said Friday that it plans to train its pilots how to use non-lethal stun guns ...

Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and chief executive of the Phoenix-based company, said the training was necessary to help the airline industry recover in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We need to do everything we can to regain the confidence of our passengers in order to ensure the future of commercial aviation,'' Ornstein said. ``We believe that enhancing on-board security will go a long way toward reaching that goal.''

Please tell Mr. Ornstein that "stun guns" remind me of the "security" on the ground that let 19 armed hi-jackers on board. Issuing stun guns just tells me your airline wants the APPEARANCE of improved security, not the SUBSTANCE.

Stun guns are a joke. They are notoriously unreliable. No cop in his right mind would trust his safety to one. (If they could, why would they need pistols?) In a best case scenario, you can control maybe one terrorist. What are you going to do about the other 4?

When you arm your pilots with firearms, then your passengers will begin to take you seriously.

Not before.

There was some outfit offering to train pilots in combat shooting for free. Suggest you take them up on their offer.

Kurt Amesbury, J.D.

Dear Mr. Amesbury:

Thanks for your note on our plan to arm our pilots with stun guns. Every airline has felt the pain of lower passenger loads since 9/11 and Mesa decided to be proactive ratter than reactive in trying to get passengers back in the air. Now will any of our aircraft be targeted for terrorist attacks? Probably not. But the perception by passengers is that it could happen, so we decided to announce our security measures to deal with that passenger perception. We took an informal poll and found that 86% of those we surveyed said they'd fly on an airline that offered increased security.

And as for guns in the cockpit, we felt more comfortable with providing non-lethal weapons. And as for cops and Tasers, I have to disagree. My own sister is a 10+-year veteran of the Sacramento Police Department, which happens to use the Tasers we're considering for our pilots, and those officers are pleased with their Tasers, and find they have been an effective crime-fighting tool. Also, I guess I have more faith in passengers and crew post-9/11 about being much more proactive in the wake of a potential terrorist attack.

Again, thanks for your letter.


Ms. Benét J. Wilson
Director of Corporate Communications & Community Affairs
Mesa Air Group
410 N. 44th Street Suite 700
Phoenix, AZ 85008
602/685-4018 work
602/685-4352 fax
602/284-2587 cell

Dear Ms. Wilson,

If stun guns were as effective as you appear to believe, cops would not need guns. Please ask your sister which she would want to have in her hand if facing one to five attackers with failure meaning she and a hundred other people would die in a flaming explosion of twisted metal.

One more question: Which do you think air marshals carry? Firearms? Or stun guns?


Dear Mr. Amesbury:

Stun guns are another choice given to cops as a compliment to their guns. Of course they would choose a gun over a taser, but there are times when a taser could be more appropriate to a situation. 

As for the airlines, guns could cause damage to an aircraft depending on its altitude. Plus there are many people who wouldn't feel comfortable carrying a firearm. Sky Marshals are armed, but they go through extensive training.

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this matter.


Ms. Benét J. Wilson
Director of Corporate Communications & Community Affairs
Mesa Air Group
410 N. 44th Street Suite 700
Phoenix, AZ 85008
602/685-4018 work
602/685-4352 fax
602/284-2587 cell

Ms. Wilson,

"Stun guns are another choice given to cops as a compliment to their guns"? You make my point for me. No cop in his right mind would try to use a stun gun as a primary self-defense weapon. But you are suggesting your pilots should do what no cop would ever choose to do: Leave the firearms at home and rely on stun gun technology to defend not only their own lives, but the lives of hundreds of people on board and potentially thousands on the ground.

The danger to aircraft of firearms on board is grossly overblown. I had hoped that a representative of an airline would be more technically savvy than to fall for the Hollywood version of what happens when a bullet penetrates the hull of an aircraft. Contrary to popular belief, the result is most likely to be a small hole that whistles a bit... not wholesale eruption of the side of the airplane with attendant ejection of the cabin contents. The pressure differential at the maximum altitude at which commercial aircraft fly is only about 7-10 psi. Even large caliber bullets leave holes smaller than .25 square inches. Consequently, a bullet hole would allow air to leak at a low rate. With 2-2.5 pounds of pressure over an area the size of your fingertip, one could probably patch the hole with a piece of bubble gum, or even a wet napkin. Not that it would matter. Most of the larger aircraft can lose several entire windows and still maintain cabin pressure. All modern pressurized aircraft are designed to compensate for far larger air leaks than even dozens of bullet holes would produce.

You haven't identified the people who would "not feel comfortable carrying a firearm" -- but I assume you are referring to some flight crew members. Have you polled your pilots to ask how many are confident that a stun gun could defeat a gang of determined terrorists?

My suggestion is to teach them how to use the firearms, put handguns in the cockpit and when their lives and the lives of hundreds of other people are hanging by a thread, let them decide then whether having the gun is a good idea. After all, your pilots make life and death decisions all the time. You have a crash axe for emergencies... why not a gun?

We have had four recent examples of hi-jackings where a stun gun would have done little or no good, but where a single firearm in the hands of a flight crew member might have saved the lives of thousands. Until airlines like yours learn that the appearance of doing something is not the same as actually doing something, passengers will continue to feel at risk and many will simply refuse to fly. At some point your airline -- and others -- will come to the realization that faux security won't fool enough people to keep you in business. How much financial suffering you endure between now and then is entirely up to you.

Thanks for your time.

Kurt Amesbury

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