A 9/11 wife’s safety worries

By Michael Smerconish Philly.com

The 9/11 Commission Report provided Ellen Saracini with a grisly account of what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 175, which was piloted by her husband, Victor, on September 11, 2001.

“The hijackers attacked sometime between 8:42 and 8:46,” the report said. “They used knives, Mace, and the threat of a bomb. They stabbed members of the flight crew. Both pilots had been killed.”

More information came from those on board:

At 8:52, in Easton, Conn., a man named Lee Hanson received a phone call from his son Peter, a passenger on United 175. His son told him: ‘I think they’ve taken over the cockpit – an attendant has been stabbed – and someone else up front may have been killed. The plane is making strange moves.’

Also at 8:52, a male flight attendant called a United office in San Francisco…. The attendant reported that the flight had been hijacked, that both pilots had been killed, a flight attendant had been stabbed, and the hijackers were probably flying the plane.

Finally, at 9:03:11, UA 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

After 9/11, 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 September 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.

Last week, when I raised Saracini’s continued concerns with United, Christen David, director of corporate communications, provided me with a statement, which said in part: “Security measures have evolved in the years since the barriers were ordered, and many more layers of security exist, including the installation of hardened cockpit doors and coded security locks.

“Flight security has various components that we use in different combinations, and this security matrix varies from one type of aircraft to another. Of those measures, secondary barriers are only one option. The secondary barrier was a very early enhancement developed in years fairly soon after 9/11, and equally or more effective countermeasures have been further developed since then. On this fleet in particular, we have made the decision to utilize those alternative enhancements.”

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.

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