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TSA, pilots wage war of words over gun program

Transportation Security Administration officials say they are moving "full speed ahead" with a program to train and arm commercial airline pilots. But pilots organizations accuse the agency of dragging its feet and, in some cases, deterring pilots from volunteering to carry weapons.

TSA's week-long training classes are currently booked through September, according to John Moran, deputy assistant administrator for law enforcement and security training at the agency. Each class contains almost 50 pilots. The agency is now filling out rosters for October. Moran said the agency may increase the number of classes starting in January.

The program has a $25 million budget for fiscal 2004. That's up from $8 million for the second half of this fiscal year. A test class was trained in April and the program officially launched July 20.

"The great majority of those who have volunteered will be trained within a year," Moran said during a Tuesday news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He predicted that there will be "thousands" of armed pilots by this time next year.

Although TSA won't reveal how many pilots have been trained to date, the number would be close to 200 if the agency has been training approximately 48 pilots per week since mid-July. Pilots organizations say the number should be much higher and accuse TSA of poorly designing the program.

About 40,000 pilots are interested in being trained to carry firearms, according to Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. But TSA has discouraged pilots from entering the program by requiring detailed psychological examinations and conducting extensive background checks, Lambert said during a separate news conference, also held at National Airport.

"We need to end the harassment of these pilots," Lambert said, noting that pilots already go through psychological exams as a routine part of their jobs.

Moran, however, said the psychological examination to become a so-called "flight deck officer" is similar to one given to other law enforcement officers. The additional level of review is necessary because of the enhanced responsibility that goes along with carrying a gun in a cockpit, he said.

About 6 percent of pilots who apply for the program don't get in, according to Moran. Two percent don't meet the qualifications spelled out in the law that established the program; 3 percent fail the psychological examination; and 1 percent have problems with the background check.

Moran also questioned the validity of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance's claim that 40,000 pilots are ready to volunteer. TSA data suggests a much lower level of response, he said.

A flight deck officer appearing with Moran said part of the problem is that the program is only a few months old. (The pilot, who TSA requested remain anonymous for security reasons, went through the initial training in April.) Pilots are still figuring out if they want to volunteer, and interested pilots must coordinate the training with their flying schedules. The flight deck officer said that after signing up for the class, he received his flight schedule and found there was a conflict. He was forced to miss two trips-and give up his pay for those days-to complete the training.

APSA and other pilot organizations argue that TSA has been opposed to the guns-in-cockpit program from the beginning. Former TSA Administrator John Magaw recently told Government Executive, "I researched it and said there shouldn't be firearms in the cockpit. If you are going to make a judgment with that gun, you have to carry it with you all the time so it becomes part of you."

TSA requires that pilots carry their guns in a lockbox.

"We are taking time to do the training and they are treating us like children," Lambert said.

The pilot groups also called on Congress to quickly pass legislation allowing pilots of cargo planes to carry guns. Such a provision was stripped out of the original legislation allowing armed pilots.