We asked an American Airlines pilot how terrorism has changed his job

He carries a gun in the cockpit

The world has been on edge dealing with a seemingly relentless stream of terrorist attacks that has rendered this year’s holy month of Ramadan a rather dark and depressing time in people’s minds. It seems as if every other day the news is dominated by a new bombing or shooting, the victims of which are almost always civilians.

A rather striking example of this came in the form of the attack on Istanbul airport in Turkey. In a post 9/11 world, people consider airports to be quite secure, but this event brought back very alarming memories.

When passing through an airport, you might wonder how secure it really is, how safe you are at that particular moment.

But travelers are not the only people that rely on the airport for their safety. Pilots are often relying on the professionalism of the security services at whatever airport they find themselves in.

We talked to a pilot of nine years who flies for Envoy, a subsidiary of American Airlines. He decided to remain anonymous to talk freely about the state of security in airports and how the idea of safety weighs upon his mind, as well as a lesser known program giving pilots the ability to carry a weapon on board.

How much does the idea of a terror attack weigh on your mind when you fly?

9/11 affected the entire industry. We all know guys that were flying on 9/11 . We have a guy who used to work at our company, he’s since moved onto American Airlines, who’s father was one of the pilots who died on 9/11 when his plane was hijacked and hit one of the Twin Towers. So safety is always on your mind, whether it’s airplane safety or terrorism. As soon as you walk in the plane you see the flight deck door which, after 9/11, they’ve all been reinforced and bullet proofed so that’s kind of your first thought as your climbing into the door that this is an every day threat and is definitely something that’s out there.

Do you carry a weapon in the cockpit?

Yeah. It’s a program that’s out there that’s on the more secretive side of the programs. I don’t think enough people do it. There are a lot of reasons whether people are lazy, you have to take a lot of your personal time to go down and receive the training, you have to stay current on your own time and your own money, so there’s not the funding to do it for a lot of people. The process is a week long and goes through classroom and range training. And it’s a very difficult program to get into. It took me three years or so to get into the program so a lot of people give up on it when they don’t hear back and if you don’t stay on top of it you’ll never hear back. But it’s an invaluable layer of security. It’s a last line of defense against the worst case scenarios that can happen.

Do all airports have the same standard of security or is it different depending on where you are?

There are only a few airports out there that aren’t TSA secured. There’s a few that have private contractors, but I would say about the private contractors, they do a better job than TSA does. They’re more thorough and a lot more efficient. I think with TSA there are a lot of shortcomings as far as people standing around to do one job. But I would say overall, there’s a lot of behind the scenes that people don’t see them do.

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So as a pilot you almost completely rely on the security of the airport you’re in?

Every airport has their own security coordinator that is responsible for the aircraft. As far as the passenger screening we have to rely on the TSA and the tips they receive so it’s a trust thing. Sometimes you see blinks in the system when you’re going through which makes you nervous but for the most part they’re trained professionals and they do a good job.

I’d say the biggest fear that I have would be an inside job. There’s a lot of loopholes where people that load bags, people that fuel the aircraft, people that work on the aircraft, don’t go through security with regular passengers. So it’s just a random type of security. They go through a background check, but some of these background checks are ten years old and, I’d hate to generalize, but if someone becomes a radical Islamist, what’s that time frame? I’m not sure which airline it was but I believe it was Egypt Air where they said that’s what took it down, a bomb that was most likely loaded by a baggage handler. That’s where the biggest threat comes from because the chance of somebody getting through security, in this day and age, is minimal. I would say your days of a 9/11 style attack are long gone. Passengers today are willing to stand up and fight.

Do most pilots try to not worry about it?

It’s not in the forefront of everyone’s mind but I think it’s something you think about. When we go down to yearly training it’s something we discuss. All airlines go over what to do in different scenarios and they always encourage you to go out on your own whether its defense training or another program that’s out their called the Federal Flight Deck Officer program. It goes through the process of deputizing pilots to carry weapons in the cockpit to guard against 9/11 style attacks or hijackings.