WASHINGTON – The government said Tuesday that it will begin recruiting cargo pilots (search) to carry guns in the cockpit for the first time, extending to them a right enjoyed by passenger pilots for almost a year.
Congress created the program to deputize pilots as federal law enforcement officers in late 2002, but excluded cargo pilots at the last minute. A year later, cargo pilots successfully lobbied Congress to allow them to join passenger pilots, who fly the same planes that they do.
The Transportation Security Administration (search) says it is now ready to accept applications online.
Sloan Davis, who flies a Boeing 767 for a major cargo airline, said he'll be one of the first to sign up. "This is a welcome move," he said. "It closes a huge gap in national security."
Davis said he was concerned that cargo security was largely left up to private companies.
The government only requires a small percentage of freight to be checked before being shipped in cargo planes. Air marshals don't fly aboard cargo planes, and freight-handling areas at airports are not as secure as passenger terminals.
Sen. Jim Bunning (search), the Kentucky Republican who sponsored the bill to arm cargo pilots, said he's "extremely pleased" by the news. Bunning's bill passed in November.
Classes for pilots who volunteer and pass the psychological testing will begin in the spring, said Mark Hatfield, TSA spokesman.
A little more than a thousand passenger pilots have been trained and deputized, Hatfield said. The TSA recently doubled the number of 50-person classes it holds every week, to 100 pilots, and will have thousands more graduated by the end of the year, he said.
For some, that's not soon enough.
Capt. John Safley, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association (search), a pilots group, said the agency needs to remove obstacles to the program.
Pilots, for example, say the psychological testing is excessive, they don't like carrying their guns in lockboxes when they're not in the cockpit, and they're concerned that the TSA can share confidential information about them with their employers.
"There's still work to be done to make this a truly effective program," Safley said. "We're still not at the level we need to get to."