Has United Made Its 787 Less Safe?

When United Airlines took possession of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in September, it was big news. A U.S.-built state-of-the-art aircraft was delivered to its first U.S. customer.

Has United Made Its 787 Less Safe?
Courtesy United Airlines

What didn't make news was that the airline paid Boeing to remove a piece of cockpit safety equipment.

Pilots told CNBC that a secondary cockpit barrier which comes as standard equipment on the new 787 is gone. The barrier is a folding metal gate which drapes across the aisle to prevent a rush on the cockpit when a pilot steps out to use the restroom. It is not a mandatory piece of equipment, and federal rules say a flight attendant with a cart can provide equal security blocking the aisle.

The Air Line Pilots Association has written United management expressing dismay that the airline spent money to have the barrier removed. "If safety is a top priority, then stop stripping United planes of the one safety measure that guarantees that the cockpit is protected."

"What are you telling your passengers?" asked Jon Russell, a United pilot for 26 years and an ALPA representative. "What are you telling your employees?"

Is it a weight issue? Boeing won't comment on how much the secondary barrier weighs, but Captain Russell said they're installed on the 757s and 767s he flies. "They weigh about 10 pounds."

(Read More: Dreamliner Arrives, but Is It Enough For United?)

He and other pilots believe it's a money issue. The airline is integrating two separate fleets of aircraft from United and Continental. Pilots say nearly all United planes have been retrofited with secondary barriers, but the Continental aircraft have not. It saves money in the long run to remove equipment from United aircraft than add it to Continental's, and the 787 is currently being flown only by Continental pilots.

"Flight security has various components, with secondary barriers being just one, that we use in different combinations," United said in a statement. "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."

"I thought they were joking," said Ellen Saracini about hearing the barrier had been removed. Saracini is the widow of Captain Victor Saracini, who died on 9/11 as terrorists stormed the cockpit and flew his plane into the World Trade Center. She has worked to improve cockpit safety, supporting rules which let pilots carry weapons.

"For Boeing to have installed these barriers as standard equipment in an airplane and for United Airlines to pay extra to remove these barriers ... I just don't understand what they were thinking of," she said.

Saracini sent United CEO Jeff Smisek a letter expressing her outrage. "It is incomprehensible for me to believe that this is what is happening," she wrote. She has not gotten a reply.

Boeing will not comment on whether other customers have asked for the secondary barrier to be removed from the 787. "We do not comment publicly on the airplane configurations of our customers, including what options they choose to equip their airplanes," spokesman Tom Brabant said.

(Read More: Is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Truly a Game Changer?)

United is scheduled to take delivery of a total of 50 Dreamliners, and it's expected the secondary barriers will be removed on all of them. A flight attendant with a cart will provide the second line of defense.

"We've seen video of people hopping over that (cart), boom, boom, boom, lickety split they're in the cockpit," Captain Russell said. Without the second metal gate, "I can't say that it's going to be unsafe, but obviously it's going to be less safe."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells