Thursday, December 11, 2003

On Nov. 25, 2002, President Bush signed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act. The law compelled the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to train and arm airline pilots who volunteered for the program. One year later, many Americans believe that large numbers of airline pilots are now carrying guns. Sadly, they are wrong.

On Aug. 26, the TSA gleefully reported that far fewer airline pilots have volunteered for the armed pilot program than pilot groups estimated might volunteer. Currently, only a few thousand pilots have volunteered for the program out of about 100,000 that are eligible. The large majority of Americans who support arming airline pilots might rightfully ask: Where are the volunteers? The answer to the question is really quite simple.

The TSA has very intentionally and successfully minimized the number of volunteers through thinly veiled threats and by making the program difficult and threatening to get into.

Airline pilots practice their profession at the pleasure of the federal government. Airline Captains must hold an airline transport pilot’s certificate (ATP) issued by the FAA. To gain the experience required by a major airline, a pilot must have thousands of flight hours amassed over many years. Once hired by an airline, pilots are required to demonstrate their proficiency in four-hour long sessions in flight simulators twice each year. Annually, airline pilots will receive a “line check” in which “check pilots” ride in the cockpit and evaluate the crew’s performance. Several times each year, FAA examiners — without notice — show up to give pilots a check ride. Twice each year, airline captains are required to report to FAA-designated physicians for a physical and psychological exam. Medical history is evaluated and a physical exam with exacting standards is performed. FAA doctors are trained to ask probing questions, looking for any sign of psychological instability, stress or depression. Failing to meet the standard for any of these evaluations will, of course, result in immediate removal from the flying schedule and loss of any opportunity to be employed as a pilot.

Now, fresh with this backdrop of the professional life of an airline pilot, consider the armed pilot program that the TSA has constructed. Understand that the TSA is opposed to the armed pilot program. Last year, the TSA granted itself the power to revoke a pilot’s ATP if it deems him to be a security threat. Pilots who volunteer for training to carry guns must complete a very detailed, 13-page application and submit to a three-hour written psychological exam probing into the most private workings of any person: his thoughts, feelings, opinions and emotions. Pilots who pass this government-sponsored psychological strip-search are then ordered to report to a government psychologist for a one-on-one “interview.”

For the pilots that finally make it into training, they will have to travel at their own expense to and pay for their own room and board in Artesia, N.M. Artesia is a four-hour drive from El Paso, Texas, the nearest city.

Airline pilots evaluate the totality of the TSA’s armed-pilot program and they have declined to participate in droves. Too many airline pilots view the TSA armed pilot program as a potentially career threatening fiasco that will cost each pilot who volunteers at least one week of flight pay and require him to bare his soul to an out-of-control government agency that hates the idea of armed pilots. Couple this with the breathtaking failure of many current and former military pilots with top-secret clearances to pass the TSA psychological evaluations and pilots are saying, “No, thanks.”

To justify their intrusive tactics, the TSA says, “We need to make sure that each pilot we allow to fly armed can use the gun to kill terrorists and then be calm enough to land safely.” In other words, We think that you’d be better off dead. Obviously, pilots won’t volunteer for the program in the first place unless they are willing to use a gun. Moreover, if a pilot is “screened out” of the program by the TSA psychological soothsayers and terrorists attack his cockpit, the outcome is very certain: He, all of his passengers and possibly many thousands on the ground will soon be dead. A logical armed-pilot program would not be looking for ways to screen pilots out; it would be looking for ways to encourage more volunteers.

We have endured almost two years of TSA searches of law-abiding citizens, yet recent news reports show that al Qaeda operatives remain interested in targeting airliners. Nothing the TSA has done thus far has sufficiently deterred al Qaeda. Embarrassed by a college student who easily snuck knives on board airliners, the TSA now plans to use technology that will “see through” each passenger’s clothing and present them naked to the government screeners.

Further violation of our rights is not the answer, but hardening the target is the answer. Congress should take all discretion about which pilots get into the armed-pilot program away from the TSA, just as 36 states have done with “Shall Issue” concealed carry laws.

Capt. Tracy W. Price flies Boeing 737s for a major airline and is the former chairman of the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance.

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