Armed Airline Pilots Rail Against the Rules

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Volunteer pilots train to disarm hijackers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga

Days from now, some pilots could be packing heat behind the reinforced cockpit door of airliners filled with screened passengers, X-rayed baggage and, occasionally, an armed air marshal. After months of controversy, 46 of the airline pilots who have pushed for guns in the cockpit spent the past week in gnat-infested Glyncoe, GA, undergoing intensive firearms training. But despite an impressive display put on for the press, there were clear signs of the contentiousness that has plagued efforts by pilots to arm themselves.

Some participants accused the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — which originally opposed arming pilots — of designing a program so rule-bound and cumbersome that it was guaranteed to fail. At one point, according to pilots who talked to TIME on background, there was even talk of a mass walkout.

The plan to arm pilots was passed by Congress in 2002 after more than a year of intensive lobbying by a group of flyers and the National Rifle Association, who outmaneuvered opponents including the airlines, other pilots, the TSA and, originally, the White House. The airlines see nothing but trouble in having a firearm — which could in theory be wrestled away by a hijacker, damage the aircraft if fired, or lead to the death of someone who meant no harm — in the same confined space as the plane's controls. Many pilots, on the other hand, want as much security as they can get. "It beats having an F-16 shooting you out of the air," said Steve Luckey, a security specialist with the Airline Pilots Association, referring to the government's solution of last resort when confronted with a hijacked airliner that could be used as a bomb. While TSA won't release numbers, the percentage of flights with an armed air marshal aboard is in the low single digits, Luckey said.

The congressional decision obliged TSA to drop its opposition and design a training program. Its technical aspects, including marksmanship and non-lethal self-defense, were excellent, pilots concurred. But after the 48 flyers — selected from a list of volunteers to bring diversity of gender, type of aircraft, corporation, age and experience — were two days into their training, they got into a combative exchange with a TSA lawyer, sharply questioning some of the rules he was laying out and at one point laughing at his response. That brought a reprimand from a TSA psychologist, and then from the TSA official who was heading the training, who reminded them that they were being watched and graded until the end of the week, said several of the pilots.

The whole program was so "unworkable," so bound by restrictions and conditions, said one pilot privately, that he planned to put his gun away when he finished the program and never take it on a flight. The pilots have also vigorously complained about how their .40-caliber semiautomatic handguns must be carried: in a lock-box, inside a bag, until they get into the cockpit and lock the door.

In addition, a day-and-a-half into the training, two of the pilots were bounced out, including one who previously transported nuclear weapons for the Air Force and is currently a union activist. They were told only that the decision was based on their background checks.

By the end of the week the air had cleared somewhat; pilots said that TSA officials were listening to their complaints and promising to make some revisions. This group of pilots were "guinea pigs," said TSA spokesman Robert Johnson. "We'll see what changes need to be made." But how many more pilots will be going through the voluntary program remains undecided. This session cost $500,000, and it's unclear if there's money for any further training this fiscal year — TSA has requested $25 million for the program in 2004. It's also unclear how many flyers will sign up. Future sessions will require them to pay their own travel, room and board, and they all must return to Glyncoe or its equivalent facility in New Mexico twice a year for requalification, again on their own dime.