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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 

What's happened to United Airlines' post-9-11 security commitments?

Michael Smerconish reports that United Airlines may have gone back on its security commitments in the structure of their planes:
After 9/11, [Ellen] Saracini was pleased when Congress ordered all cockpit doors reinforced and heartened when United, although not mandated, outfitted its airplanes with secondary doors.

"The secondary barrier is a lightweight wire-mesh door that is locked in place to act as a barrier for when the cockpit door is opened during flight when the crew comes out for a meal or bathroom breaks," Saracini explained to me. "It is not a replacement for a reinforced cockpit door. It is just a door intended to provide enhanced security for a few extra seconds until the cockpit door can be closed."

When United took the lead in this regard, it earned plaudits from the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA). Delaying a hijacker for just five seconds could make a difference, ALPA said in a 2007 report.

But United has changed course. The airline took possession of the first of 50 ordered 787 Dreamliners from Boeing in September, and the aircraft were delivered without a secondary door.

Why the change?

That's the "question of the century," Saracini said. On Oct. 11, she wrote to United CEO Jeff Smisek, seeking an answer. In August, two ALPA representatives raised similar concerns with Smisek. They wrote: "The events of 9/11 showed us that there are significant threats to aviation that should not, that cannot, be ignored. ... Following the tragedy of Sept. 11, United Airlines ... made a commitment to protecting the cockpits so that 9/11 could never happen again. United management established a goal to install 'secondary security barriers ... on all aircraft' and in doing so, set the example for the industry." A union representative told me it did not get a reply from Smisek.

Saracini received a response from Michael Quiello, United's vice president for corporate safety. He expressed sympathy for her loss but did not answer her question. "For security reasons I am sure you can appreciate that we are not able to share all the methods we have in place to meet the ever-changing threats, but please be assured that we are absolutely compliant with all FAA regulations, which include a multitude of cockpit security measures." Quiello offered to fly to Saracini's home and meet with her. [...]

While noting the invitation to meet with Saracini, United said it had no desire to "have the conversation with her through the media."

Saracini is not mollified. But she told me she intends to accept the meeting invitation, so stay tuned.

"This should infuriate everybody," she told me.
Absolutely. Security procedures are completely vital for the safety of the crew and passengers, and if United Airlines is suddenly dropping the security door layers from the plane models they're getting, it should not be overlooked. Anyone thinking of buying a flight ticket with their network may want to reconsider if they're suddenly backtracking on security commitments.

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