Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Pilots already trained to carry guns and operate sophisticated weapons systems are among 100 applicants rejected from a federal program to arm flight-deck officers to protect aircraft from terrorist attacks.

Former police officers, firearms instructors and military pilots have filed written complaints with the Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) program questioning its psychological- and background-test system, as well as its generic rejection letter that doesn’t explain an applicant’s purported shortcomings.

One pilot, a retired Air Force colonel and fighter wing commander responsible for multimillion-dollar jet fighters, said he was allowed to carry his pistol aboard military aircraft.

“The USAF considered me psychologically sound enough to be directly responsible for nuclear weapons,” the pilot wrote. “Yet a TSA psychologist has determined I am unreliable to carry a weapon in my own airliner.”

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the program’s psychological- and background-test system “is the most fair kind of system that we could put in place to qualify as many as possible.”

“It’s important to arm pilots to protect the flight deck,” he said.

The program’s rejection letter says: “Based on TSA’s evaluation during the selection process, you currently do not meet the criteria for participation in the FFDO program.”

The unexplained rejections, gun-handling rules pilots say threaten security, and the declining number of pilots now willing to participate in the program have several members of Congress drafting legislation to eliminate “roadblocks” they say the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has created.

“We are talking about professionals here, but it’s just been roadblock after roadblock at TSA. The only thing I can think of is, it’s a liberal, knee-jerk reaction to guns,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican.

Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, said legislation he and Mr. Wilson are drafting will force TSA to implement the program as it was originally intended by Congress.

“Despite the urgency of this initiative to enhance our homeland defense, only a fraction of our 100,000 pilots have been armed so far. This will ensure that all pilots who have volunteered for this program can be trained and armed as soon as possible in order to defend the cockpit from terrorist thugs,” Mr. Bunning said.

The FFDO program was established after the September 11 terrorist attacks and TSA officials say “hundreds” of pilots have completed the one-week training program since it began in April.

Mr. Melendez acknowledged there have been complaints that pilots are not being qualified fast enough, but said the agency has doubled the number of classes this year.

“You can’t federalize the pilots they would like federalized in nine months, but we are working very hard,” Mr. Melendez said.

David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, said his organization solicited volunteers for the program and 40,000 pilots asked to join, but only about 15 percent, or 6,000, actually enrolled.

Mr. Mackett and several pilots say officers are abandoning the program because of rules that require them to carry guns in lockboxes at all times instead of in shoulder holsters, and the weapons cannot be accessed until they are behind reinforced cockpit doors. They say the procedures make the flight deck vulnerable to attack every time the cockpit door is open.

As for the program’s screening process, one pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the psychological evaluation assumes all pilots are “drunken wife-beaters.”

Mr. Wilson said the evaluations are “just insulting” and one of many regulations designed as “a series of roadblocks to block it from becoming effective.”

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