Safe in the Skies?

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, December 23, 2003.

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RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've had a reminder just within the last 24 hours that the United States still faces serious threats. We've seen the threat level escalated to level orange. We've done that because we've seen some reporting that leads us to believe it's necessary. It's a reminder to all Americans that, in fact, we are faced with a very serious long-term threat to the United States.

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LAURIE DHUE, GUEST HOST: Tonight, surface-to-air missiles (search) are in position around cities like the nation's capital. This as the military resumes around-the-clock combat air patrols over New York City, Washington and Los Angeles for the first time since April of 2002. This is in response to unconfirmed reports that terrorists may have been hired as pilots for foreign commercial airlines, putting them in prime position to carry out a terror attack. Is there any way to stop them?

Joining us now from Memphis, Tennessee, is veteran pilot Captain James Shilling of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations. Captain, thank you for being with us tonight.

CAPT. JAMES SHILLING, AVIATION CONSULTANT: Thank you for having me.

DHUE: When you talked with one of our producers earlier, you said, quote, "Airline passengers will not let someone take an airline down today." Maybe that's true, and now we know that air marshals are on board to protect us. But what if the threat is the pilot? That's frightening.

SHILLING: Oh, indeed. And I think that that's something that we have to always bear in mind. Now, here in the United States, I have the utmost confidence in our pilots. I have the utmost confidence in our security infrastructure and the things that we do today. In the United States, we can control the level of pilot, the kind of pilots that we have. But in the rest of the world, we can't. I can't control what goes on in other countries. I can't control their hiring methods. I can't control who is on board that aircraft and at its controls.

DHUE: Well, let me stop you and ask what kind of international pilot-screening procedures are out there that you know of right now?

SHILLING: Well, I think that we're talking a whole host of issues from any number of different airlines. In some countries, I'm sure their screening processes are very, very little. In other countries, I'm sure they do have some screening processes. But we've already seen at least one example of where most people think the pilot at the controls was the reason the aircraft crashed, and that was the Egyptair aircraft.

DHUE: Remind everybody when that was, if you would.

SHILLING: I don't have the exact date in my mind right now, but it was a couple years ago. It was an Egyptair 767, and the cockpit voice recorder and most people tend to think, through the data recorders, that the pilot at the controls was one of the reasons that aircraft went down. Now, that's met with some speculation.

DHUE: Right.

SHILLING: But a lot of experts believe that's, indeed, what happened. So we have to keep in mind that with respect to foreign aircraft, you know, we have to protect our infrastructure. And if they're going to fly into our country -- and we can't stop them from flying into our country, we really don't want to stop them from coming to our country -- but if we have that threat and if the intelligence suggests it, then it's important that we protect the White House, the Pentagon, and everything that's out there that would be a target.

DHUE: What about small-town America?

SHILLING: Well, small-town America -- obviously, that's something that we always need to be concerned about, as well. I think that's one of the things they could focus on. If you can't protect anything, you can't protect the small towns, that certainly would weigh. But I think that most terrorists are going to look for the biggest bang in big cities. I think that's one of the areas that we always need to protect, and those cities like New York, like Washington, those cities -- you know, those are what we need to be concerned with. They hit those once and they'll try to hit them again.

DHUE: Captain, how often do international flights pass into American airspace, say, when they're going from somewhere in Europe to Canada or Mexico? I would think it would happen scores of times a day, if not hundreds of times a day.

SHILLING: Well, you got to remember that a large, large percentage of international traffic actually happens on U.S. aircraft or in the United States. So regardless of how many airplanes actually fly in or around the airspace, you have an immense amount of airplanes that do come to the United States every day from global destinations. We have gateway cities, and those gateway cities, again, in New York, in Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle, in through Anchorage, those cities are immense, and they have a lot of, lot of traffic coming in from international destinations. So yes, there are a lot of, lot of traffic coming through those areas.

DHUE: How safe are we on airplanes today? I'm getting on a plane in a couple of days to go home to see my family. Should I be worried?

SHILLING: No. No, no. Go. And I will say this. Obviously, I, as a commercial airline pilot -- I go get on an airplane. And tomorrow, if my family was going to fly somewhere, I would put them on an airplane. But we have to always bear in mind that life as we know it has changed.

Now, that doesn't mean that we need to stop. We need to keep flying. We need to keep doing what we do. But we have to bear in mind that there are certainly people out there that would bring harm to us. Now, we have made a lot of progress. We have obviously got the legislation that we have arming pilots now. We just got legislation that we have armed cargo pilots. We have the doors going into the cockpits on passenger aircraft that are hardened. So clearly, we've made some great strides.

Now, with that, we also have to be aware there's a lot of things that we still have to do. We have cargo screening. We have got to know what's on board the aircraft in its cargo.

DHUE: Right.

SHILLING: We have got to know that. We have to make sure that anybody that has access to the airplanes, be it on the freight side of the airport or on the passenger side of the airport -- if you've got the ability to get near the airplane or its crew, you have got to be screened, and it's necessary that you've had a criminal record history check done on you. Without those, we can't guarantee it. Look, the fact is, we can take our house, we can put alarms, we can put lights on, we do all of these things. Are we safer? Yes, unless you leave the back door unlocked and they find it.

DHUE: So we're safer, but we are not completely and totally safe.

SHILLING: Well, I would say that's a fair statement. We are certainly safer, but I'm a perfectionist. I'm the guy that flies...

DHUE: I'm glad.

SHILLING: Indeed. So you know what? As we go along this process, as you're fighting any war -- and everybody agrees we're in a war now -- as we deal with any war, we have to constantly go through and evaluate because the threat changes. And anytime that we get one threat that we figure out what it is and close that hole, we have to be aware there's another hole somewhere they're going to try to get a hold of. It's a dynamic and changing situation. But the sooner that we in America realize this, the better off we're going to be. We have got to continue to fight this war to keep the American population safe.

DHUE: Very well said. Captain James Shilling with the Coalition of the Airline Pilots Associations, who has also been a pilot for over 20 years. Captain, thank you very much, sir, for coming in. And happy holidays to you.

SHILLING: Happy holidays. Thanks for having me.

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