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Senators say U.S. slow to arm pilots
The federal government is stalling the process to arm airline pilots, according to lawmakers pushing new legislation to jump-start the program created in 2002.
Sens. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, and Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, introduced the bill before the Easter recess to force the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to implement the Federal Flight Deck Officer program the way Congress intended.
Mr. Bunning said the legislation "will take down the barriers TSA has thrown up, and will help make our skies more secure."
"The TSA has been dragging its feet in arming our nation's commercial airline pilots. It has been over 2 years since the attacks of September 11th," Mr. Bunning said in announcing the legislation last week.
Only 2 percent of 100,000 eligible pilots have been trained to carry guns. They are then forced to carry the weapons in a lockbox, unless they are behind a locked cabin door, and are forbidden from carrying weapons on international flights -- rules pilots have said undermine the program.
One TSA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged yesterday there was "internal resistance" to arming pilots in the program's first few months, but that those who opposed the program are no longer employed by the agency.
"That belongs on the History Channel; it is not true anymore," the official said. "There has been a 180-degree turn, and there is enthusiastic support for the program."
The bill requires the government to immediately deputize as air marshals any pilots with military or law enforcement background who are already trained to carry weapons. Those already trained would have 180 days to go through additional government training, and any new volunteers would have to be trained within 90 days.
Pilots would be allowed to carry guns on international flights, and to carry guns holstered instead of in lockboxes.
"When we wrote the original armed-pilots program, our intent was to create a last line of defense in the case of a terrorist attack," Mrs. Boxer said. "But TSA has slow walked the program from Day One, denying thousands of pilots their right to be trained in this program and denying the American people the additional security they deserve."
Both senators were instrumental in getting the Federal Flight Deck Officer program -- part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 -- signed into law last year.
Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, is sponsoring a companion measure in the House, where it passed two years ago by a 310-113 vote -- "a clear message" to the administration, he said.
"The great majority of commercial pilots are professionals who are former military or law-enforcement personnel with years of experience handling weapons. They are surely qualified to defend themselves and their passengers against possible midair attacks," Mr. Wilson said.
"We trust pilots with our lives to fly jets. Surely we can trust them to be armed to protect themselves and their passengers," Mr. Wilson said.
David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, said pilots must be trained and armed to deter hijackers.
"The crews of the doomed airliners on 9/11 were unwittingly placed on the front lines on the war on terror. Regrettably, they were defenseless on that day," Mr. Mackett said.
By Joy Overbeck
Redemption by government is futile
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