TSA firearms training changes trigger Hill outcry

The agency responsible for training airline pilots to defend their cockpits with semiautomatic handguns said it will move its training program from Georgia to a remote desert site in New Mexico after Labor Day, a decision that triggered angry protests Tuesday by House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and other lawmakers.

"They're not happy campers on the Hill," Mica said in an interview, referring to himself and his colleagues.

Mica lambasted the Transportation Security Administration, which Congress tapped last November to run the guns-in-cockpits program.

"There are members who are upset the agency turned it into a bureaucratic, costly endeavor-and we want something simple," Mica said.

Mica, an architect of the airline security program, threatened to stop the move legislatively, saying emphatically that "there will be a directive through the security bill in the [Federal Aviation Administration] reauthorization, now in conference, or by working with appropriators" to insert a rider to a spending bill.

"There's significant opposition" in Congress to moving the training classes to the single location in New Mexico, he added.

The TSA will move its training classes because the Georgia facility, one of several Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers across the country, cannot handle the program's anticipated growth, a spokeswoman at the TSA regional office in Scottsdale, Ariz., told CongressDaily late last week.

Under what is officially known as the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, the TSA has trained and certified only one class of 44 pilots in firearms use to defend their cockpits from terrorists or other dangerous intruders. Those pilots, who have been sworn in as law enforcement officers, graduated in April.

Mica said he and his subcommittee learned of the relocation plans in a heated closed-door meeting two weeks ago with retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, the TSA administrator.

Aides to Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., in whose district the current training activities are located, said Georgia lawmakers first learned of a possible move when USA Today reported June 6 that TSA was offering its trainers the chance to relocate to New Mexico, where it said the agency planned to hold all future firearms training classes for pilots.

The aides said Kingston, who was en route to Washington Tuesday, was angry and frustrated that he and his staff picked up some details from training center officials in Georgia but could not get anything confirmed by TSA headquarters.

On June 30, the agency added to the uncertainty when it issued a little-noticed news release announcing that six-day training classes would resume July 20.

"Classes will be conducted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center's campuses in Glynco, Ga., and Artesia, N.M.," the TSA release said.

But late last week, Suzanne Luber at TSA's regional office confirmed to CongressDaily that all classes at the Georgia site would end by Labor Day.

"We'll move classes to Artesia in September," Luber said, explaining that the amount of firearms training at the Georgia facility has been "growing exponentially," crowding out the classes for airline pilots, which are expected to increase in size and frequency in fiscal 2004.

The New Mexico site is better suited for the TSA program, Luber added.

"We have three airplanes on the ground and we do our federal air marshal training there," she said.

Last May, Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, urged TSA to examine the availability of other federal law enforcement training facilities, including the one in Artesia, so pilots who volunteer for the training can travel to the nearest site.

Officials at the labor union declined to comment on the move to Artesia, although some pilots have groused about the inconvenience of the desert location, accessible only by car after flying a small plane to Roswell, N.M. Under the program, pilots must pay their own travel, lodging and daily expenses.

Mica accused TSA of failing to respond to a consensus view in Congress that also supports using multiple locations, but with a clearly defined role for private instructors under federal supervision.

"We want a dispersal of training at federal facilities and we want it open to competition in the private sector," he said.

Refresher courses for the twice-a-year recertification requirement should also be held at more than one site and with private contractors, Mica added.

Instead, TSA will move its own trainers across the country and continue to put pilots "through all the hoops" to earn the right to keep guns in their cockpits, Mica said.

"It makes no sense," he said.

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