By Vicki Rock Daily American
The widows of two pilots who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, are lobbying Congress for a law requiring airlines to install a secondary security door to prevent would-be hijackers from getting into cockpits.
Melodie Homer, Marlton, N.J., is the widow of First Officer LeRoy Homer, who was one of the pilots on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Stonycreek Township. Ellen Saracini, Yardley, is the widow of Capt. Victor Saracini, who was piloting United Airlines Flight 175, which hit the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York. They began lobbying Congress when they learned that United was removing the secondary security doors from newer planes.
“It is quite upsetting to me,” Homer said in a telephone interview.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks Congress required airlines to install reinforced cockpit doors that could withstand gunfire and explosives. The Air Line Pilots Association said in a written release that those doors work. But there are times that cockpit doors are open — when pilots are leaving the cockpit to use the restroom or when meals are being taken in to them.
Several airlines, including United, voluntarily added a secondary retractable door. The secondary doors cost an estimated $5,000 to $12,000 each, according to U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Langhorne. Those doors are pulled across the cockpit entrance and latched when the primary doors are open.
Homer and Saracini learned last August that United Airlines, which had merged with Continental, was removing the secondary doors. Continental makes the management decisions for the merged airlines. The women believe the doors were removed because the company did not want to install secondary doors on all the airplanes now owned by the merged company.
Christen David, spokeswoman for United Airlines, commented in an email.
“At United, the safety and security of our customers and co-workers is paramount,” she said. “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. 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.”
Homer questioned airlines’ priorities.
“When the airlines are spending a million dollars for entertainment systems for each plane but are not willing to spend much, much less to make sure the cockpit is secure, it is disconcerting,” she said.
The women have been meeting with congressmen, including Fitzpatrick, the chief sponsor of the Saracini Aviation Safety Act, which would force airlines to install secondary barriers. The bill has been referred to the House Transportation Committee. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, is the chairman.
Shuster commented on airline safety in an emailed statement.
“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,” he said. “The safety and security of 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.”
Homer and Saracini each said that they haven’t been able to schedule a meeting with Shuster.
Gretchen Gailey, the congressman’s spokeswoman, said she was told that Homer is not coming to Washington Thursday and that no one else requested to meet with Shuster.
“Flight 93 crashed in his district,” Homer said. “He is chairman of the transportation committee. If he had any concerns, it would be nice to have the opportunity to discuss it with him. The bottom line is we need for him to release it from committee. This vulnerability needs to be corrected before someone realizes that it exists.”
While the Flight 93 crash site was in Shuster’s district, under redistricting it is now in the district of U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.
Recently Homer was on a flight that didn’t have a secondary security gate. When one of the pilots left the cockpit, a flight attendant pushed a beverage cart in front of the door and stood behind it. Homer was told by other pilots that sometimes flight attendants will stand in front of the open cockpit door with their arms folded across their bodies.
“I don’t think flight attendants have signed on to wrestle someone away from the cockpit,” she said. “This needs to be taken care of.”
Neither woman would have predicted years ago that they would someday be lobbying Congress.
“If something happened and I did nothing, I could not look you in the eye and say sorry, I knew that there was something wrong, but I didn’t do anything about it,” Saracini said.
“After Ellen and I met, I said if I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other families I will,” Homer said. “We are fortunate that the TSA reversed its decision and is not allowing knives on planes. This is so personal to me. We shouldn’t have to have another tragedy occur before we change things.”