- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Obama administration has no plans to end a program that trains commercial airline pilots to carry guns and thwart terrorist attacks, and in fact is seeking to expand resources for oversight and training, government officials and pilots organizations say.

“We’re looking for new resources and more money to bring in for next year. The benefits of the program are obvious. The pilots are an intrinsic part of our whole aviation-security strategy and one of our layers of security,” said Robert Bray, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, which oversees the program.

The Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) program was created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has since trained 12,000 pilots on how to carry weapons and defend their aircraft against an attack. Among the planned expansions, Mr. Bray said, is the construction of a new center in Dallas, where armed pilots can receive recurring training.

Mr. Bray and the pilots groups disputed a March 17 editorial in The Washington Times entitled “Guns on a plane: Obama secretly ends program that let pilots carry guns,” which suggested that recent discussions about spending some of the program’s money for supervisory jobs amounted to killing the program.

“That is completely false,” said Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the largest pilots union in the U.S. and Canada, with 53,000 members.

After the editorial appeared, Capt. Prater said, his group called a meeting with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials and were reassured the new administration supports the program.

“We’re not seeing anything other than cooperation, and certainly the fact that as soon as this opinion piece came out, ALPA and TSA met immediately, and from what we’ve determined, there is no truth to the fears that were put forth in that opinion piece,” Capt. Prater said.

The Times’ editorial pages recently were brought under new management and operate separately from the newsroom. Editorial writers produce content that is not reported or overseen by newsroom employees.

“The Editorial Department has been in transition these last few weeks. We’re aware of the error and are investigating what happened so we can learn from the mistake and not repeat it,” Associate Publisher Richard Amberg Jr. said.

Homeland Security officials and pilots say that the program has proven to be an important security layer and that they are interested in making the program more efficient.

“We look forward to working with the Obama administration to improve the management and funding of the program to make it what Congress originally intended it would be,” said David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, an organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of the program.

The editorial cited information from pilots it did not name, claiming that the approval process for letting pilots carry guns on planes has “slowed significantly” and that the “approval process has stalled out.”

Mr. Mackett said the approval process did slow last fall during the final days of the Bush administration, but it was before the election and possibly a result of dwindling funds at the end of the 2008 fiscal year.

The editorial also said the Obama administration recently “diverted some $2 million from the pilot-training program to hire more supervisory staff, who will engage in field inspections of pilots.”

However, pilots are supervised by the airlines, not Homeland Security, and Mr. Bray added that no funds were diverted; rather, he said, additional money is being sought to manage gun-training programs.