The Gun That Got Away

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When pilots wanted to carry weapons after 9-11, government officials rushed to criticize the plan. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta repeatedly said that he wouldn’t support the initiative. One big concern was the question of how pilots would transport their weapons when they were off-duty. But in spite of apprehensions, the government finally relented in April, 2003 by instating the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, which allows trained pilots to carry guns while they are flying the plane. Off-duty pilots are required to put their weapons in lockboxes and store them in the cargo hold. But recent mishaps involving lockboxes have the pilots up in arms and pushing hard to amend the Transportation Security Administration’s policy.

According to pilot and government sources, an FFDO's lockbox with the gun inside has gone missing. This is the first time that a pilot’s gun has been reported as lost. The loaded gun inside its lockbox was removed from the cargo hold of a commercial jet in Las Vegas three weeks ago by an unauthorized person. The lockbox carrying the gun has yet to turn up. Normally, an FFDO gives the lockbox to authorized personnel who then place it into the cargo hold. The FFDO is the only one with the combination that can unlock the box carrying the weapon.

In this case, the FFDO, who had followed TSA regulations precisely, immediately informed the authorities, who were also unable to locate the gun. This situation, according to security professionals, was much worse than the cases of guns that have been discovered on passengers at screening checkpoints because the FFDO’s gun was already in the so called "secure" area of the airport.

Captain Duane Woerth, president of the Airline Pilots' Association, said the TSA should learn from the incident. "This is exactly what we warned TSA about when they came out with their rule on pilots having to carry their firearms in lockboxes. The lockbox was a bad idea from the start and TSA needs to get rid of it." A TSA official acknowledged that the incident was of concern to the agency and was under investigation. He also said the TSA had no immediate plans to overhaul its policy on how off-duty pilots transport their weapons.

But pilots say this is just the worst case in a litany of other lockbox mishaps. Some pilots have reportedly had to chase their lockboxes as they were being carted away by unknowing baggage handlers. One pilot said that on six separate occasions his lockbox was not where he had properly put it on an airplane. If the TSA isn't listening to pilot concerns, it may soon be answering to Congress. Several congressmen, according to sources from pilot groups, are preparing legislation that will force the TSA to amend the weapons carriage policy.