Going beyond party lines

Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick and Josh Gottheimer promote bipartisan Saracini Aviation Safety Act

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Providing protection: H.R. 911 was named in memory of Capt. Victor Saracini of Yardley, who was killed when terrorists hijacked United Flight 175 on Sept. 11, 2001. Since her husband’s death, Ellen Saracini (pictured) has been a leading advocate on the issue of protecting the cockpit door. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

The 17th anniversary of the tragic events that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 is practically upon us. Yet, almost two decades later, pilots and flight attendants of most commercial aircraft still feel vulnerable and improperly trained to counter a terrorist attack.

“Today we use a beverage cart. And we put that beverage cart as a deterrent,” said Ken Diaz, MEC president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “It’s not a deterrent. If anyone was to rush that cockpit door today, that beverage cart goes down in an instant.”

Diaz, a flight attendant of 20 years at the time of Sept. 11, fought back tears as he recalled the heartache felt after learning his cousin, a father of two young daughters, perished in the south tower of the World Trade Center.

In Diaz’s opinion, the lives of the nearly 3,000 people senselessly killed that day could’ve been saved if there was a secondary barrier protecting the cockpit door. On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 15, Diaz’s sentiment was shared by a host of people gathered at the Garden of Reflection 9/11 Memorial in Newtown, all of whom ventured into the scorching summer heat to bring attention to one thing — the Saracini Aviation Safety Act (H.R. 911).

Introduced by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, Josh Gottheimer, Andre Carson and Peter King, the bill would require all airlines to install inexpensive, lightweight, wire mesh gates between the passenger cabin and cockpit door on all new and existing planes. The barrier would block access to the flight deck whenever the cockpit door is opened for pilots’ meals, restroom use and other reasons.

H.R. 911 was named in memory of Capt. Victor Saracini of Yardley, who was killed when terrorists hijacked United Flight 175 on Sept. 11. Since her husband’s death, Ellen Saracini has been a leading advocate on the issue of protecting the cockpit door.

“We all remember where we were on Sept. 11. We all could be repeating that again,” she said to attendees. “The vulnerability that happened on Sept. 11 still exists today on the flight deck.”

Ellen explained how the mesh barrier is a simple, common sense solution. Similar to how dog owners put up a gate to ensure their pet is safe and sound, she said this would serve the same purpose. According to Ellen, the bill has now sat through three Congresses. Though baby steps are being taken to push the legislation forward, she’s thrilled to have the bipartisan support of Fitzpatrick (R) and Gottheimer (D-NJ).

“I just can’t look another family member in the eye and say, I’m sorry, I knew there was an issue and I decided not to do anything about it,” she said. “This is about making sure our skies are safe.”

Currently, H.R. 911 has 86 cosponsors — 61 Democrats and 25 Republicans. Sen. Bob Casey even introduced a Senate version (S. 911) in April 2017. Still, due to the rules and regulations of Congress, the bill has yet to be brought to the House floor for a vote.

Fitzpatrick. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

“Think about the tens of billions of dollars we spend on aviation security to keep our airlines safe, from TSA to FAA to traffic controllers to security at airports, and yet this step still has not been taken,” Fitzpatrick said, mentioning how the barriers would cost approximately $5,000 to build and install. “It only takes a split second for a trained hijacker waiting at the precise moment to rush a cockpit and take control of that plane. And this common sense, bipartisan Saracini Aviation Safety Act has sat in Congress for years.”

Since joining forces on the day they were sworn into Congress, Fitzpatrick and Gottheimer have managed to get language included in the FAA Reauthorization Act that requires secondary barriers be installed in all new aircraft. The Act is currently awaiting passage in the Senate. Though this marks a critical step forward for H.R. 911, it’s still not enough for the congressmen and Ellen since it will only affect a single digit percentage of aircraft.

“If you’ve acknowledged that you need it on new aircraft, it’s for a reason. It should be on all aircraft. Why would you just want some people in the sky to be safe versus ensuring everyone is safe?” Fitzpatrick said.

He went on to explain how the system is “broken.” According to him, 218 members of Congress can support a bipartisan bill, which is enough to pass a piece of legislation. But due to the rules and extremists on both sides, it’s practically impossible to get it to the floor for a vote. To help combat this, Fitzpatrick formed the “Break the Gridlock” initiative, which he told The Times is his proudest moment in Congress.

“It’s a way to force these bills to the floor, giving all 435 members of Congress a vote because right now, not everybody gets a bill to the floor. Not everybody can even get a committee hearing or mark up,” he said. “All 435 members represent roughly the same number of people, 700,000 or so give or take, and they all deserve to give voice for their constituents.”

At its heart, Break the Gridlock would give fast-track priority to bipartisan legislation such as H.R. 911, in addition to bills concerning everyday matters such as healthcare and criminal justice.

“We believe America comes before any political party, that action for the country should always come first,” Gottheimer said.

Today, Fitzpatrick stated that the FAA continues to admit the cockpit is vulnerable when the reinforced doors are open — something 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took note of 17 years ago. According to a commission report, Mohammed studied the cockpit during previous flights, determining if/when the door was opened and the opportune time to storm it. He was so confident the cockpit would be easily accessible through the open door that he didn’t have a contingency plan. All it would’ve taken to foil his mission was a simple, mesh gate.

“I’ve worked flights that have this barrier installed. I know it protects the cockpit,” Diaz said. “Congressman Fitzpatrick and Congressman Gottheimer realized that it didn’t matter whether they had a D or an R behind their name. They were going to do right for Americans, right for everyone who flies on our aircraft.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com