Bankrupting in-flight security


After 9/11, the airline industry went through wrenching changes. The government took over airport security and massive machines were installed to screen luggage. Now we all stand in long lines waiting to get to our boarding gates. It’s tiresome, maddening and sometimes humiliating — but we all know that it is necessary. But now comes a new danger: security is about to be compromised inside the cabin.

America seems to have forgotten that the only airline terrorist disaster to be averted since 9/11 was the fiendish plot of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 in midair on December 22, 2001. And who foiled the plot? The American Airlines flight attendants.

It has always saddened me to see 9/11 commemorations honor politicians, police officers, fire fighters and other first responders – but not flight attendants. They are heroes, too: the first combatants and the first casualties in our war on terror.

All accounts of the Richard Reid incident place alert flight attendants at the center of the action.

“The crew were the true heroes of that day,” Aviation Today says. “Their actions saved the lives of everyone on board that flight.”

Similarly, Time magazine wrote in 2002, “When the alleged shoe bomber struck in December, Cristina Jones and Hermis Moutardier became unlikely soldiers in an unusual war.”

The Time article continues:

I leaned in and said, ‘What are you doing?'” As she pulled at him, he turned, giving her a glimpse of what he was hiding. What she saw terrified her. “He’s got the shoe off, between his legs. All I see is the wiring and the match. The match was lit,” she says. Twice she grabbed him, twice he pushed her away, the second time so hard she fell against an armrest across the aisle. I’m going to die, she thought.”

Cristina Jones then came to the assistance of her crewmate. Time quotes her:

“I yelled, ‘Stop it!’ and grabbed him around the upper body. I tried to pull him up. And that’s when he bit me.” She screamed, and passengers started crawling over seats to restrain him. But his teeth would not let go. “I couldn’t get my hand out of his mouth. I thought he was going to rip my hand apart it hurt so bad. It was surreal.”

After subduing Reid, passengers and the crew tied him up with headset cords and belts. Eventually, doctors on the flight injected him with sedatives. Flight attendants had to improvise ways to keep the passengers calm while maintaining high alert in case Reid had an accomplice onboard.

We have all heard the end of the story: The plane landed safely, and the shoe bomber was taken away. Later tried and convicted, Reid, still unrepentant, is now serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison.

Now flight crews are taking no chances. Anyone who flies in the front of an airplane has seen the choreographed procedures that go into effect whenever the captain or first officer needs to leave the cockpit, for example, to use the toilet. Flight attendants position a meal cart across the aisle, open the cockpit door and stand guard until the captain is safely back in the cockpit. There is no fooling around. It is serious business.

That’s because they know that U.S. airliners are the primary targets of terrorist attacks. They must get the kind of deliberate and determined defense that only American-trained and American-based flight attendants can provide.

Unfortunately, airline managers now flying under the cover of bankruptcy protection are beginning to make noises about outsourcing the work of flight attendants on their international flights to crews from China, Mexico and Asia. It’s an economy move, they say.

Don’t let them do it.

Admittedly, flight attendants on U.S. airlines working international routes are already an international mix. But for the most part, they are American-trained, U.S. residents with strong ties to our country.

All U.S. flight attendants are inspected, fingerprinted, background-checked and screened by the Transportation Security Administration. At most airports, they are also required to go through the public security screening system. Moreover, U.S. airlines themselves are prohibited from having more than 25 percent foreign ownership — in the interests of national security.

With that level of commitment to security, it is hard to believe that the government would be willing to sacrifice the American public’s flight safety by permitting airlines to outsource flight attendants’ jobs.

Are foreign flight attendants cheaper? It depends on where you find them. European flight attendants certainly are not. Flight attendants from China, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan and other Third World countries maybe work more cheaply, but at what cost to security?

It’s bad enough trying to deal with airline customer service agents based in India. Their efforts may be exasperating and even unsuccessful, but at least they don’t have life-and-death impacts.

Security is far more important than dollars and cents. Let’s not go down the road of outsourcing the front line of America’s airline security.