Widows accuse Pa. congressman of stalling air-safety law

Jennifer Fitch, Herald Mail Media

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Two widows of airline pilots who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks charge that a simple solution to increase flight safety is hinging on cooperation from Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania.

The husbands of Ellen Saracini and Melodie Homer were flying United Flight 175 and United Flight 93, respectively, when they were hijacked by terrorists.

Now, the women accuse Shuster, R-Pa., of holding up legislation that could potentially deter someone from trying to storm a cockpit.

The nation repeated “never again, never again” after September 11, 2001, Homer said. “In the years since then, it seems the promise we were given has been forgotten,” she said.

Saracini lives in Bucks County, Pa., where her congressman, Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, has introduced H.R. 1775 [to read H.R. 1775, please click here] that would require airlines to install “secondary barriers” in planes. 

That secondary barrier is a gate pulled into place and locked when the pilot leaves the cockpit, including when he or she needs to use the restroom.

The bill — called “simple” and “common sense” by Saracini — was first introduced in 2013. It is currently languishing in the transportation and infrastructure committee, which Shuster chairs.

“Should we wait until another attack for this bill to be released?” Homer asked.

Saracini said Shuster met with her once last year and assured her he would follow up on their discussion, but she claims he has avoided contact since.

Homer, who lives in North Carolina, said she has sent letters and emails to Shuster’s office.

“Like Ellen, I have not received a response,” she said.

Saracini and Homer spoke Tuesday morning at a news conference hosted by Alanna Hartzok, who is running on the Democratic ticket for Shuster’s 9th Congressional District seat in the Nov. 4 general election.

In a statement, Shuster said he was “pleased to meet” with Saracini, and staff members met with her on a separate occasion.

“Since the attacks on 9/11, there have been 20 different security and safety measures used to protect against acts of terrorism, including reinforced cockpit doors, armed pilots under the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, federal air marshals, passengers and cabin crew who are more proactive and vigilant, more thorough passenger and baggage screening, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security,” Shuster said.

Shuster said in the statement that he supports H.R. 2946, known as the “Risk-Based Cockpit Security Act.”

“This legislation directs the TSA to conduct a true risk assessment of cockpit security and identify the methods to mitigate such risks, something that has yet to be done to date,” he said.

Pilot ‘dumbfounded’

Chambersburg resident Ed Bell, who flies Boeing 777 planes for United Airlines and attended the news conference, said he is “dumbfounded” Shuster will not push H.R. 1775 out of committee.

In early May, Bell was on a layover in a hotel adjacent to Ground Zero when he talked to Shuster staff members about H.R. 1775 in a conference call. He said the staff members told him there is no scientific data saying a secondary barrier would help, and the congressman is opposed to all new regulations.

A federally commissioned study did support the concept of the secondary barrier, Saracini said.

The study estimated the barrier would cost $5,000 to $10,000 per plane, but United Airlines voluntarily installed some barriers with one vendor at $3,500 each, but later stopped doing so, she said.

The secondary barrier would supplement the practice of a flight attendant using a beverage cart to block the aisle when the cockpit door is open. One model found it could take less than two seconds to topple the top-heavy beverage cart and enter the cockpit.

“We know terrorists and unstable individuals will look for weaknesses, and this is clearly a weakness,” Saracini said.

Saracini, Homer and Hartzok accused Shuster of being beholden to the airline industry for its contributions to his re-election campaign.

However, online Federal Election Commission records indicate donors to “Bill Shuster for Congress” also include the Air Line Pilots Association, which supports H.R. 1775.

Grief still raw

Homer’s daughter was 10 months old when her husband, First Officer LeRoy Homer, died on Flight 93, which crashed in the 9th District’s Somerset County.

“To this day, it’s still hard for me to believe my husband went to work and never came home,” she said.

Bell found it emotionally difficult to see Homer because, while flying an Airbus outside Pittsburgh, he spotted Flight 93 in the air before it crashed.

He speculated an acquisition by Continental Airlines led to United Airlines being less proactive about installing the secondary barrier gates.

“They’re not as passionate. They didn’t lose their friends,” he said.

Saracini said she would prefer to not be fighting for this cause because it keeps her grief raw, maintaining that the country is “the era of a do-nothing Congress.”

“We’re the voices to make sure Congress does something about it. That’s absurd,” she said.

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