- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

An airline pilots association estimates 30,000 commercial pilots who want to carry guns on flights never enrolled in the federal training program because its rules are too restrictive and make commercial airlines more vulnerable to terrorist hijackings.

“They walked when they saw the actual program TSA [Transportation Security Administration] put in place,” said Capt. Dave Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. “There are 300 pilots on any given day to protect 35,000 flights. It’s like policing Washington, D.C., with nine officers.”

Mr. Mackett said only giving pilots access to their guns behind locked cockpit doors has made routine business such as going to the bathroom and getting a cup of coffee “the most threatening time to a flight right now.”

“The TSA has effectively told terrorists our worst fears: Buy a first-class ticket; you don’t have to break down the door, just wait until it is opened and rush the cockpit,” said Mr. Mackett, whose group was formed to promote airline security and arming pilots after September 11.

“Go right over that snack cart that is used to prevent an attack, get in the cockpit, slam the fortified door behind them, and no one can get in,” Mr. Mackett said.

Mr. Mackett said 40,000 pilots volunteered last year to join the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) security program, but only 6,000 pilots have applied. The TSA’s Web site lists 6,000 applicants to the program, which is open to 100,000 pilots nationwide.

Citing security reasons, TSA officials would not say specifically how many pilots have completed the training program, except that the number was in the “hundreds.”

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said no pilots have complained about the procedures.

“To our knowledge, it hasn’t been a problem,” Mr. Melendez said.

One certified federal flight-deck officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called that an “absurd statement,” and said pilots are complaining en masse.

“This program is so bad, 40,000 people volunteered last year and now we hear it is down to 5,000,” the pilot said.

“The pilots I fly with refuse to participate specifically because of the carrying method,” the pilot said.

Last year, a poll by the Allied Pilots Association showed 78 percent of its 10,000 members supported the law allowing pilots to carry guns passed in 2002. A poll by the Air Line Pilots Association found 73 percent of its 62,000 members wanted to carry guns.

TSA officials said the rules on handling weapons are designed to protect both pilots and passengers.

“We don’t want weapons going through airports unsecured,” TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said. “The pilot’s main job is to protect the flight deck, that is their jurisdiction and that is where it would be used if the flight deck was breached.”

In contrast, officials from 130 federal agencies, including the Peace Corp, Postal Service, Library of Congress and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, are permitted to carry concealed weapons in a holster aboard commercial flights, Mr. Mackett said.

“It makes no sense that a meat inspector can carry a weapon but the pilot charged with protecting the flight has to put it in a lockbox,” said Mr. Mackett, whose organization represents pilots from all the major airlines.

Intelligence indicating terrorists are planning hijackings similar to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has forced the cancellation of 10 flights between Britain or France and the United States in the past two months.

The rules have angered Republican members of the House and Senate, who are writing legislation to trump the regulations.

Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, called the lockbox requirement a “roadblock” by TSA to “sabotage the ability of pilots to be armed.”

In January, Dean Roberts, a commercial airline pilot for Southwest Airlines, testified before the House Small Business subcommittee on rural enterprise that “TSA’s practices have impeded and obstructed pilot participation.”

A former U.S. Customs Service Pilot and Drug Enforcement Agency pilot and firearms instructor, Mr. Roberts told the congressional panel that TSA’s weapon-handling policy is “unsafe” and has resulted in weapons being misplaced daily.”

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