WASHINGTON – Fewer than 100 pilots have been trained to carry guns in the cockpit in the eight months since Congress (search) approved the idea, and hundreds more are waiting, but pilots and members of Congress say the program is not moving fast enough.
Pilots say it's more important than ever to get weapons in the cockpit because the Transportation Security Administration (search) froze hiring in the air marshal program in May and the government is warning Al Qaeda (search) may try more homicide hijackings.
"Between the air marshals and the federal flight deck officer force, we should cover a vast majority of the domestic flights," said Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance. "It just seems like we haven't learned very much from Sept. 11 (search)."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation., said he's angry that the TSA is moving at "a snail's pace."
"You can't imagine my frustration," he said. "This should be a quick orientation."
The first 44 pilots to complete the five-day weapons training program were designated "flight deck officers" on April 19 and began flying with weapons. The second class finished in July, and now classes are conducted weekly.
Hundreds more who have undergone background checks and psychological tests are lined up for the weapons training program in the fall, said TSA spokesman Robert Johnson.
TSA is already in trouble in Congress. Lawmakers say the agency, which has a $900 million shortfall, has grown too large, too fast, doesn't properly prioritize spending and is slow to respond to queries from Congress.
The TSA had opposed arming pilots, believing heightened security at airports, bulletproof cockpit doors and more vigilant passengers made it unnecessary. Critics also said adding weapons to airplanes was inherently dangerous.
Pilots lobbied Congress, arguing they could supplement the air marshals, who cover only a small percentage of the 35,000 daily flights in the United States.
TSA chief James Loy grudgingly endorsed the idea after it became apparent Congress would pass such a directive.
Under the program, pilots take a week of classes, weapons instruction and hand-to-hand combat drills at the TSA Law Enforcement Academy in Glynco, Ga. Background checks and psychological testing can take two months to complete.
Johnson said the TSA believes pilots must be submitted to the same kind of screening that other federal law enforcement officers go through before they're sworn in.
Mica calls the psychological testing "nonsense."
"It's been captured by the bureaucrats and they've run amok," Mica said of the program.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a sponsor of the bill to arm pilots, charged the TSA is dragging its feet because it didn't want pilots to carry guns in the first place.
Mica is circulating a letter in Congress urging the TSA to turn over the program to the private sector. Pilots are lobbying to move it to another agency, preferably the FBI.
Owen Mills, owner of a private firearms training facility in Paulden, Ariz., said he would charge about $3,000 per pilot for a week of training. The TSA says it costs about $6,200 for training, testing and background checks.
Pilots also are worried about the TSA's plan to move the training academy to a federal law enforcement training center in Artesia, N.M., next month. They say that will further delay getting more pilots certified to carry weapons.
The TSA said the New Mexico training center is better because it has three Boeing 727s configured for terrorism training. Georgia originally was chosen because it was more convenient for pilots.
Capt. Steve Luckey, a retired pilot who helped develop the training program, said the pilots' program is more cost-effective. Pilots train on their own time and pay for transportation, room and board. Air marshals are government employees.
Congress gave the air marshal program more than $500 million last year. In April, TSA set aside $8 million to train pilots through September.