- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

The idea of arming airline pilots gained ground yesterday when Transportation Department officials said they were reconsidering their opposition to guns in cockpits.

However, any proposals for arming pilots must overcome opponents such as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the powerful head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Mr. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, said during a hearing on aviation security yesterday that fortifying cockpit doors was a better alternative.

"The door has got to be fixed, impenetrable and never opened in flight," Mr. Hollings said. "Once that's fixed, we've solved the problem of an airliner flying into the Empire State Building. We've solved the problem of guns in the cockpit."

He repeated his position that weapons in the cockpit could be a greater hazard than a safeguard.

Nevertheless, even some fellow Democrats are saying armed pilots could be an effective deterrent against terrorists.

"The crews of our airlines need to be prepared as the last line of defense against terrorists," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat. "And pilots who are fully trained and volunteer should be part of a guns in the cockpit program."

Mrs. Boxer and other members of Congress say the consequences of another hijacking show the need for arming pilots.

"This is something I feel strongly about because the military is under orders to shoot down a commercial flight if it is hijacked," she said.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said he was joining supporters of a Senate bill introduced in May that would deputize commercial pilots as "flight deck officers" and allow them to carry guns.

"We need to make cockpits as secure as a vault and provide other security measures such as air marshals and better technology, but passengers also deserve the added safety provided by allowing properly trained pilots to protect the plane with firearms as a last line of defense," he said.

On June 10, the House approved a bill similar to the Senate version endorsed by Mr. Allen.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta acknowledged during a House hearing on aviation security Tuesday that the Bush administration was reconsidering its opposition to arming the nation's 70,000 commercial pilots.

"It is under discussion in terms of should we take another approach," Mr. Mineta said.

John Magaw, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who was replaced last week, opposed arming pilots.

However, James Loy, his replacement as TSA administrator, told the Senate yesterday he would look into the matter before making a decision.

"I'm hesitant, but I'm also being directed to conduct a review," he said.

Transportation Department officials also said they were having difficulty meeting the deadlines for new security procedures demanded by Congress.

The aviation security bill approved by Congress last November requires that the entire nation's private work force of airport screeners be replaced by the TSA's federal work force by Nov. 19. The bill also set a Dec. 31 deadline for all checked baggage to be screened for explosives.

Mr. Mineta told the Senate the $3.85 billion supplemental spending bill Congress is giving the TSA is inadequate to hire all the screeners and purchase all the bomb-detection equipment needed.

"Congress has given us a strict and inflexible mandate and insufficient funds to meet it," Mr. Mineta said. The TSA needs another $1 billion, he said.

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