WASHINGTON – Airline pilots may have guns and reinforced cockpit doors, but cabin crews and passengers are still left too vulnerable, say some lawmakers and interest groups who want to arm flight attendants with the skills they need to help prevent a successful hijacking or terror attack.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), attacks, when box cutter-wielding terrorists hijacked and crashed four planes into the Pentagon (search), the World Trade Center (search) towers and a Pennsylvania field, much focus in Washington was placed on how to better secure airline pilots and prevent terrorists from getting into the cockpit.
But what's been lacking, say advocates, is standard security training for flight attendants and other cabin crew members, especially since pilots are not supposed to leave the cockpit in the event of an emergency.
"When the passengers and flight attendants are locked up in the back of the plane without assistance, [defensive trainers] give us a fighting chance to protect our lives and the lives of our passengers. The people in the plane deserve at least that," said Dawn Deeks, spokeswoman for the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants (search).
The association has been urging members to sign on to a letter being circulated on Capitol Hill by Sen. Ernest Hollings (search), D-S.C., which is calling on the Transportation Security Administration (search) to mandate uniform security training and procedures for flight attendants. That letter was sent to TSA on Wednesday.
Currently, it's up to the individual airline's discretion exactly what kind of training to provide, but some flight attendants say it's often in the form of a video or short discussion, Deeks told Foxnews.com.
"The airlines are going to try to get away with whatever's cheapest and easiest rather than what's most effective," she said. "It's a complete patchwork out there of what the different carriers are doing. The only thing the carriers have in common right now is that none of them are doing a good job."
But the airlines say they do provide training — much of which is pursued by pilots rather than flight attendants — as part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer (search) program, among others.
"Flight attendants are provided security training as part of their basic training and their continuing education," said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (search), which represents the major air carriers.
Alaska Airlines (search), for example, offers judo and karate classes to flight attendants for free, Wills said.
"Flight attendants were never hired or intended to be security guards — the federal government specifically chose to expand the federal air marshal program" on both domestic and international flights for that reason, Wills continued.
On Sept. 11, 2001, only 22 sky marshals were patrolling international flights. After the terror attacks, 200,000 people applied for federal air marshal (search) positions — thousands of which were hired, according to a spokesman for the program. The marshals are now on both international and domestic flights but not every one.
"The odds are, if you fly frequently, you've flown with federal air marshals," said the spokesman. "They're basically there undercover and to monitor activities in the plane. They provide a higher level of protection and there's certainly greater numbers [than] before 9/11."
TSA officials say the agency is in the process of boosting its training recommendations — but that it will still be only voluntary for airlines to participate, unless TSA is mandated by Congress to do otherwise.
"To date, we have fulfilled and will continue to fulfill all of our responsibilities assigned to TSA by Congress regarding crew member self defense," said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.
Under legislation called "Vision 100," (search) which was passed Dec. 12, 2003, TSA has one year to develop a more comprehensive crew member self-defense program to pass on to airlines. Again, crew participation is voluntary.
"We are in the process of doing that and we're fine tuning the curriculum and supporting materials," Davis said. "The training is envisioned to include both hands-on physical training, as well as classroom sessions."
Lawmakers like Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., are hoping to attach similar language to the homeland security appropriations or authorization bills; the appropriations bill is scheduled to be taken up soon and the authorization bill should be debated during the third week of the month.
Markey's Secure Existing Aviation Loopholes Act (search) — a measure that establishes a deadline of one year from the date of enactment to develop a counterterror training requirement for flight attendants — is stuck in committee so the congressman will try to attach that provision to the homeland security legislation, a Markey spokesman said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also reintroduced legislation last month to make flight attendant security training mandatory and uniform.
"Flight attendants are part of the last line of defense against terrorist attacks," Boxer said when introducing the measure. "But instead of receiving quality security training, the airlines are racing to see who can have the cheapest and quickest program. When it comes to the safety of the flying public, the last thing we should be doing is rushing or doing this on the cheap. We can't afford to be sloppy about aviation security."
Some experts say there are self-defense moves both cabin crews and passengers can practice and utilize in case of an attack.
"The fact remains that unless law enforcement is aboard, passengers and flight attendants remain the most unprotected," said Mark Bogosian, a commercial airline pilot and co-author of "Never Again: A Self-Defense Guide for the Flying Public."
"People need to know, as a crew member — you hope to God that everybody in the back of that airplane is prepared," Bogosian said. "People need to know that this book is out there and we're leveling the playing field so [Sept. 11] will never happen again."
Bogosian's book — co-authored by Tommy L Hamilton, a SWAT (search) team commander, and Michael Regan, a former police training coordinator and Air Force veteran — outlines and depicts various self-defense techniques everyone can use while flying or taking other modes of public transportation.
"In a perfect world, we'd have everyone take [a] self-defense course," Bogosian said. "The next best thing is to provide a book that's very easy to read with a lot of pictures that are very easy to follow."