- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Pilots groups yesterday called on President Bush to order the Transportation Security Administration to move more quickly in arming airline pilots as a last line of defense against terrorists.

“It’s been almost two years since the attacks of September 11 and we only have less than 150 pilots approved to carry a firearm,” said Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

About 10,000 pilots should be carrying guns in the cockpit by now, the pilots said at a press conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The coalition held similar press conferences at five other airports in the United States.

“The president has it in his power to invoke an executive order to allow volunteer airline pilots to carry lethal weapons to defend the cockpits of our nation’s airliners with expedited training,” Mr. Lambert said. “We call on President Bush to end the delay and take steps to make our skies safe again.”

TSA officials also held a press conference at Reagan Airport yesterday to say they are taking appropriate action to arm trained pilots within their budget constraints.

“The great majority of those who have volunteered will be trained within a year,” said John Moran, who heads the TSA’s pilot-training program.

TSA officials cautioned that too much haste could lead to psychologically unstable or poorly trained pilots carrying guns, creating more risk than protection for passengers.

“Most travelers support the arming of pilots, but they also expect that it be done right,” James M. Loy, TSA administrator, said in a statement. “That means making certain the pilots who volunteer are capable of handling the law enforcement responsibilities and weapons given to them by the federal government.”

Next week, the TSA plans to open a new training facility in Artesia, N.M. The pilots have been training at a smaller facility in Glynco, Ga.

The new facility will include three airplanes for simulated gun battles and a live-ammunition firing range. The facility has no airplanes. Pilots use paint guns for training .

The pilot-training program has been operating for only six months after receiving authorization from Congress, TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said. The new Artesia facility will allow more pilots to be trained and certified to carry guns.

“This is a young program,” Mr. Johnson said. “The mission is evolving.”

TSA officials do the training themselves because Congress ordered them to set up the program. They also said their training reflects the kinds of armed confrontations pilots are most likely to face.

The TSA has budgeted $8 million in the current fiscal year for pilot weapons training. The agency has requested $25 million for fiscal 2004, which starts Oct. 1.

Mr. Johnson described the pilots’ charge the TSA was dragging its feet as “a disagreement on some of the details.”

However, pilots said the TSA created administrative barriers that slow progress of the “federal flight deck officer” program. Among them, pilots must undergo background and psychological checks, some must carry guns in lockboxes, and training has been limited to the remote site in southeast Georgia.

“We estimate 40,000 pilots would volunteer if it were properly managed by the TSA,” Mr. Lambert said.

The TSA graduates about 50 pilots each week, according to pilots’ organizations.

The classes are booked through the end of September, TSA officials said. The agency plans to double the number of classes in January.

Congress approved guns for pilots in Novemberafter pilots argued that air marshals alone provided inadequate security. Air marshals cover only a small percentage of the 35,000 daily flights in the United States.

TSA froze air-marshal hiring in May to help close a $1 billion budget shortfall.

During the debate in Congress, the TSA opposed arming pilots, saying improved airport security, bulletproof cockpit doors and more vigilant passengers were a better security precaution. However, Congress approved the program, and TSA officials agreed to cooperate.

The TSA authorized the first 44 pilots as flight deck officers April 19. The second class finished in July.

Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, agreed with the pilots’ complaints about the pace of gun authorizations.

“Pilots volunteering to receive this program’s training are not receiving it in a fair and timely way,” Mr. Bunning said. “TSA must do better.”

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