WASHINGTON -- Ellen Saracini became an airline security advocate in the hardest way possible. She lost her husband, Victor, on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers rushed his plane's cockpit and then crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
So when she learned that United was paying Boeing to remove certain security barriers on the new 787 Dreamliners designed to thwart hijackers, she says she couldn't believe it. These "secondary barriers" are low-tech gates that prevent an attacker from rushing the cockpit when a pilot opens the main cabin door.
"There is no logical explanation for it," Saracini told The Huffington Post on a visit to Capitol Hill this week to urge Congress to require the secondary barriers on most planes. "The fact that you are removing secondary barriers and putting the cockpit at risk is an insult to my husband. And it's an insult to me, and it should be an insult to every crew and passenger and potential target on the ground. It is an irresponsible move."
Pilots like the added security the barriers provide and had hoped to see them made mandatory several years ago, but lawmakers and industry officials agreed that airlines were doing a good enough job already, said John Barton, an airplane captain and an official with the Air Line Pilots Association.
"There's a series of layers on the aircraft that we use to secure the plane while we're in flight," Barton said. "Some of those are classified. But the fact of the matter is that no single layer on the airplane -- or in combination with others -- is more effective than the secondary barrier if a terrorist or an unruly passenger wants to get into the cockpit."
Saracini's trip to Washington, she said, coincidentally overlapped with public criticism of the Transportation Security Administration's new policy to allow knives back on planes.
"It makes all the less sense now if you're allowing weapons back on an airplane, if you're allowing terrorists or a person off their meds to be able to drink and carry a weapon," Saracini said.
United Airlines declined to discuss any specifics of what the company is doing, citing security concerns, but said in a statement that it believes it is sufficiently protecting its planes.
Flight security has various components, with secondary barriers being just one, that we use in different combinations. This security matrix can vary from one type of aircraft to another. While we don't discuss details of which security measures are used for a particular aircraft or a particular flight, we are thorough in carrying out our security responsibilities for every flight. The safety and security of our employees and customers are our top priorities.
Relatively few planes have the secondary barriers, with most of them being on United's larger aircraft. Barton said United didn't seem to be opposed to them entirely, offering during contract negotiations last year to let the pilots' union install them.
"$15 million. If we wanted them, they wanted us to pay [that] out of our contract," said Barton, adding that the sum would be a drop in the bucket for United's budget.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.