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Sept. 11 widow bid for cockpit barriers gets ear in Congress

The widow of a pilot who died on one of the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is gaining congressional support in her campaign to add another barrier to airliner cockpits.

Ellen Saracini, widow of United Airlines Flight 175 Captain Victor Saracini, says a flaw persists with cockpit doors, which have been reinforced since 2001 to prevent another attack. She says they’re opened several times during flights, which could let a terrorist get through and seize control.

Pilots’ groups also have called for using secondary barriers to prevent the sort of actions that concern Saracini. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, said legislation is needed to complete the job started after the terrorist attacks to ensure another airliner can’t be turned into a guided missile.

“For the minimal cost and the maximum protection provided, this is a no-brainer,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview.

Saracini wrote to President Obama outlining the need for additional cockpit protections in March, a week after the Transportation Security Administration said it planned to let passengers carry now-banned pocket knives aboard on domestic trips. Flight attendants, air marshals and airport screeners came out against the change, prompting a delay by the agency.

The TSA’s move shocked his constituents and defied common sense, Fitzpatrick said. He’s also worried about reports that airlines that were voluntarily installing secondary barriers have stopped, citing cost and added weight.

“Twelve years after 9/11, we seem to be getting too complacent,” Fitzpatrick said. “We should be protecting the public. Instead we’re rolling back the protections of 9/11.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, a union, has advocated for regulations on secondary barriers for years. An industry committee at RTCA Inc., a nonprofit organization that advises the Federal Aviation Administration, has studied the issue and published guidelines. The guidance is intended to guarantee easy installation and maintenance, and to keep down added weight while ensuring adaptability for future aircraft designs.

In her letter to the president, Saracini said United Continental Holdings recently paid Boeing to remove the secondary barrier from Dreamliner 787s it had ordered.

ALPA wrote to United Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek last August, objecting to the airline’s decision to eliminate secondary barriers and a suggestion that pilots bear the cost of “safety equipment necessary” for passenger and pilot protection.

“United management seems to have forgotten about its commitment to safety and the importance of cockpit protections to the airline, the industry and the nation,” Capts. Jay Pierce and Jay Heppner wrote.

Secondary barriers are only one element of flight security, and the mix of what’s used varies by aircraft, said Christen David, a United spokeswoman, in an email. The airline doesn’t discuss security measures for particular planes or flights, she said.

“We are thorough in carrying out our security responsibilities for every flight,” David said. “The safety and security of our employees and customers are our top priorities.”

The secondary devices would be put in place before the cockpit door is opened, to provide more time for members of the crew to react should someone try to barge in. One barrier shown in a union white paper looks like a fence attached to cabin walls.

At least 10 hijacking attempts since 2007 show the need to do more, according to a congressional fact sheet. Airlines began installing secondary barriers on their own in 2003, while their interest has waned since 2010, it said.

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