Small Airlines Making Big Security Moves

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Chances are you've probably never flown Mesa Airlines, the 24th largest carrier in the country. But the Phoenix-based airline, which flies mostly throughout the southwestern U.S., is the first — and so far only — U.S. carrier to put trained security personnel on board its flights. "We're small, but we're setting a national example," says Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. "All airlines should be doing this."

On September 11, being small suddenly became a huge advantage in the airline business. While the major carriers focused largely on a $15 billion financial bailout and convincing Congress to take over the costs of airport security, small airlines went to work on on-board safety. Given their tiny fleets, enthusiastic employees and more nimble management, micro-carriers like JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines were able to have entirely redesigned, and reinforced cockpit door designs within two weeks. Officials from both airlines tell TIME that they are also making plans to install hidden cameras to monitor the passenger cabin from the cockpit."Past practice has been to wait and see what others will do," explains Thomas Nunn, Frontier's Director of Safety. "This was no time to wait."

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Passengers will notice a difference: JetBlue's new, Kevlar-packed doors are thicker than the traditional ones, which had a lightweight, honeycombed interior. A bluntly-worded placard now reads, "Reinforced armor-plated door locked from inside cockpit only." Flight attendants for the New York-based airline will also change their safety briefings to make sure passengers take note of the new barrier. What the public won't see is the multiple titanium locks that the pilots slide in place once the door is shut. The doors, which were designed by JetBlue's own engineers, are costing the privately-held JetBlue about $10,000 each for their 18 Airbus A320 airplanes.

The little guys skipped the interim solutions favored by majors like United and American, such as rigging a horizontal bar across the cockpit door, chiefly because they could: the big carriers have hundreds of planes to retrofit, and that takes time and money. Frontier, which has both Boeing and Airbus aircraft in its 31-plane fleet, decided that the bars weren't up to the job. "[That bar] is simply a feel-good measure," says one pilot from a major carrier. Frontier's engineers were unable to find any acceptable hardened cockpit doors quickly and eventually built their own from scratch. They will have shallow metal grates that cover the entire door, and deadbolts.

Making the cockpit inaccessible during flight is important, but further steps are necessary. The airlines are divided on how best to approach them. "There are lots of security issues," says one big carrier source, "But first we need to get rid of incompetent screeners. That's why the federal government should take that function over." Mesa's Ornstein counters, "The industry shouldn't be complaining about screeners — it should be moving towards airlines creating their own corps of flight security officers." The major carriers say they're waiting for federal air marshals. In the meantime, Mesa's security people will blend in with other passengers: they won't be in uniform and they won't identify themselves.

Mesa's Ornstein is betting that all these steps are good for his tiny company's $47-million bottom line. And he brandishes an internal poll showing that 85 per cent or more of those surveyed in Arizona said they would feel more comfortable with a trained security person on board. The first Mesa security officer goes down the jetway this week. Mesa may be the first airline to take the step. If Ornstein's right, it won't be the last.