9/11 widows push for increased security of cockpits

Mary Pickels
| Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The widow of a pilot hijacked during 9/11 wants Congress to pass a bill mandating secondary barriers to aircraft cockpits.

Victor Saracini was captain of United Airlines Flight 175, which was crashed into New York City's World Trade Center's South Tower, killing 60 passengers and crew.

Ellen Saracini of Yardley in Bucks County hopes the Saracini Aviation Safety Act will be passed by this year's memorial observations.

“It's been 12 years,” she said. “I feel there is a real threat. Terrorism is not going away.”

Melodie Homer of Marlton, N.J., widow of United Flight 93 First Officer LeRoy Homer, is assisting Saracini in the lobbying effort.

Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township in Somerset County, after four terrorists overtook the cockpit, killing all 40 passengers and crew aboard.

A Pennsylvania congressman, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Langhorne, introduced the Saracini act in April. It would require airlines to install and maintain a secondary cockpit barrier on commercial planes.

“After the 9/11 attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated the installation of reinforced cockpit doors on all commercial flights. The problem is that at some point, the pilots need to open the cockpit door to get a meal or rest. That is the exact moment when terrorists strike,” Fitzpatrick said.

The gate also could serve as a barrier against “unstable individuals” trying to enter the cockpit, Saracini said.

The bipartisan proposal is before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg. His 9th Congressional District includes the Flight 93 crash site.

Saracini said she and Shuster recently discussed his work with Fitzpatrick to try to bring the bill to a vote on or before Sept. 11.

“Since 9/11, important steps have been taken to improve cockpit security including reinforced cockpit doors, arming pilots through the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, and an expansion of the Federal Air Marshal Service,” Shuster said.

“However, we must always remain vigilant, and I appreciate the input of Ms. Saracini and others as we continue to assess the security of our aviation system. Safe air travel is of the highest priority and Congress will continue to evaluate these programs and additional proposals to ensure appropriate measures are in place,” he said.

In 2003, some airlines, including United, voluntarily installed secondary barriers. The retractable, mesh gates are secured before the cockpit door opens.

“They were leading-edge, cutting-edge technology” to prevent a security breach, Saracini said.

She and Homer learned last year that United was ordering new Boeing aircraft without the additional gates.

“This is the airline my husband worked for and died for,” Saracini said.

She said the gates are a “low-cost solution,” compared to money spent on in-flight entertainment systems or the millions paid to families through the Victim Compensation Fund.

Homer said she once witnessed a flight attendant use a beverage cart to block the cockpit entrance. “That's the barrier,” she said.

United spokeswoman Christen David said the barriers remain on some of United's fleet, but she would not address the new Boeing planes.

“At United, the safety and security of our customers and co-workers is paramount. We continue to work with industry and government leaders to enhance the safety and security of the cockpit. Security measures have evolved in the years since the secondary barriers were ordered, and many more layers of security now exist,” David said in an email.

“While we don't discuss the details of the security measures that are used for a particular aircraft or a particular flight, we thoroughly carry out our security responsibilities for every flight,” she said.

The Air Line Pilots Association this year released a “call for action” endorsing secondary barriers. The group has asked pilots to urge their representatives to co-sponsor the Saracini Aviation Safety Act.

FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

“The FAA has no present requirement for secondary cockpit barriers because current security systems and policies have proven highly successful at preventing cockpit intrusions on U.S. aircraft. Operators may add a secondary cockpit barrier as optional equipment,” Salac said in an email.

“My concern is, obviously, I would never want anything like 9/11 to ever happen again. ... It's an easy, obvious fix,” Homer said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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