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More than 2 years later, only small percentage of pilots is armed

Chicago Tribune | May 3, 2005
BY ANDREW ZAJAC

WASHINGTON -(KRT) - The pistol-packing pilot was supposed to be the last line of defense against a terrorist who managed to get into a cockpit.

But now, more than two years after Congress sanctioned a training program to deputize aviators and allow them to carry guns in the cockpit, it's believed that only about 5,000 - a little more than 5 percent of the estimated 95,000 commercial pilots in the country - are armed while they fly.

Pilot advocacy groups claim there's a pent-up demand of perhaps as many as 40,000 pilots willing to arm themselves, but they charge that the Bush administration has deliberately undermined the program by making training inconvenient and insisting on an awkward protocol for transporting weapons.

"I think the program was designed right from the start to discourage pilots," said Paul Onorato, vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, which includes pilot unions representing Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.

Indeed, airline industry management opposed arming pilots and has never warmed to the program.

It doesn't help that the training for flight deck officers is overseen by the Transportation Security Administration, a troubled agency with dwindling responsibilities within the Department of Homeland Security.

Pilots who want to carry a weapon must submit to background checks and psychological screenings on top of the mandatory semi-annual evaluations required to keep their certification to fly.

Candidates then must take a week of training on their own time in Artesia, N.M., a three-hour ride from the nearest regional airport, in El Paso, Texas.

TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter disputed the notion that the application and training regimen are unduly burdensome, or that there is a huge backlog of pilots frustrated by the program's requirements.

"It's TSA's responsibility to ensure that everyone in the (Federal Flight Deck Officer) program is fit and qualified. Not everyone is appropriate for this role," Von Walter said.

She declined to disclose the precise number of federal flight deck officers for security reasons, saying only that it was in the thousands. Industry estimates hover around 5,000.

Training involves classroom work and drills that teach defensive tactics and target shooting, including unsheathing and firing a standard issue .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol from the awkward position of a cockpit seat.

Pilots are taught that their firearms can only be used to defend against a direct attack to the cockpit.

Therein lies a major rub for many pilots.

Because their law enforcement authority begins and ends on the flight deck, pilots are required to stow their guns in a locked metal box whenever they're out of the cockpit.

At a minimum, most pilot groups want to get rid of that requirement and allow pilots to wear guns in holsters, like other law enforcement officers.

"If you (leave the cockpit) to go to the bathroom, you have to take the gun off and put it in the box," said Steve Luckey, a retired pilot who chairs the national security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at United, Continental, Delta and Northwest airlines, among others. The restrictions force pilots to handle guns more often, increasing the chances for an accident, he said.

Other pilot groups want the TSA to go further, eliminating or cutting back the extra screening for prospective flight deck officers, and supplying badges to go with paper credentials, so pilots can quickly identify themselves as law enforcement officers.

But the agency is adamant that pilots shouldn't carry firearms outside of the flight deck and have no need for badges.

"The cockpit is their jurisdiction. Period. End of story," Von Walter said.

She said there have been no known deliberate or accidental gun discharges in the program.

Michael Boyd, a Denver-based aviation consultant, said that behind the haggling about protocol and procedure lies a fundamental dispute between those who view arming pilots as a low-cost, last-ditch line of defense against air piracy, and the Bush administration and much of the airline industry, which believes that allowing a gun on an airplane invites unacceptable risk.

"It's a judgment call," he said.

Pilots note that they already deal with immense responsibility and stress and that "if you've given him a 747 to fly, then he can handle a .38," Boyd said.

TSA flatly rejects such equivalence. "Being fit to fly a plane does not mean that they're fit to use deadly force," Von Walter said. "That's what makes this position unique in law enforcement."

Air carriers worry that the widespread arming of pilots could send the wrong signal about airport security improvements, said Jalal Haidar, an aviation security official with the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization.

Bag and passenger screening has been upgraded and cockpit doors reinforced since the flight deck officer program was authorized by Congress, according to Haidar, the former chief of operations at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Pilots won the first round of the debate to authorize guns on the flight deck, successfully lobbying a Congress still sensitive to security considerations following the airliner hijackings in the Sept. 11 attacks. But after approving enabling legislation in November 2002, lawmakers left the details up to the administration, which crafted the stringent guidelines.

Last year, Congress made cargo pilots eligible to carry guns, but it passed on the chance to loosen procedures to make it easier for pilots with military backgrounds to arm themselves.

Adding a measure of confusion to the armed pilot program is the uncertain future of the TSA, much of which is being dismantled and parceled out to other agencies.

Von Walter said that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the department, which will help determine where the armed pilot program will land.

 

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