FAA Wants Public Opinion on Arming Pilots

Now that politicians and lobbyists have had their say on arming airline pilots, it's the public's turn.

The FAA is asking for public comment about authorizing on-duty pilots to carry firearms in flight — a post-Sept. 11 issue incorporated into the new federal air travel security law that passed in November.

"We need to decide whether it's safe, reasonable, optimal, or whether there is some other thing we need to be doing," said Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman with the Federal Aviation Administration. "Do we want dangerous or less-than-lethal weapons on an airplane? There are lots of reasons for and against it, and we have to look at all of that."

After much discussion and negotiation, Congress passed the expansive Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) in November; it took effect last month. One section authorizes commercial jet pilots to keep firearms with them in the cockpit — but only if the following four conditions are met:

• The airline approves

• The undersecretary for the newly created Transportation Security Administration approves

• The weapon is approved by the undersecretary

• The pilot has undergone appropriate firearm use and safety training, as determined by the undersecretary.

The national Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) was intricately involved in how the armed- pilots passage, Section 128 of the act, was worded.

"The legislation, we think, was adequate," said ALPA spokesman John Mazor. "We proposed arming airline pilots on a limited, selective basis. We think that's a necessary component that does have its place in a series of defenses against terrorist hijackers."

Mazor said the union's only remaining concern is the requirement for air carrier approval.

"Some airlines are indicating they're not going to permit it on their operation and that's unfortunate," he said. The union fears that if some airlines opt out, the effectiveness of the measure would weaken.

But though it's snagged a place on the books, the new law is still causing a commotion.

While they're glad that pilots have been authorized to carry handguns, pro-firearm groups like Gun Owners of America argue the law's language is limiting.

GOA Executive Director Larry Pratt said that pilots' unions have gotten involved at the local level, threatening to walk unless they're armed when they command a passenger plane.

"We hope they're going to end up having pilots trained and authorized to be carrying guns in the cockpit," Pratt said. "We think it's safer if pilots keep guns with them while on duty — make them federal law enforcement agents, at least to and from work."

GOA even goes a step further, lobbying that passengers with concealed weapons permits be allowed to take guns with them on planes.

Gun control advocates like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are strongly opposed to the armed-passenger idea, and say pilots shouldn't be toting guns either.

"We don't believe arming pilots is the best course of action," said Brady Campaign spokeswoman Amy Stilwell. "Improving airline security and preventing weapons from getting on aircraft is the best course of action. Folks with weapons shouldn't be getting on airplanes in the first place."

The organization is worried that guns onboard could wind up in the wrong hands or even damage the plane.

"We have serious concerns about arming pilots: Could it compromise the integrity of the aircraft itself? When would pilots be authorized to use guns?" Stilwell said.

GOA claims that a handgun isn't likely to do significant damage to a passenger jet, even if errant shots are fired.

"The plane is not going to go down if a bullet goes through the skin of the plane," Pratt said. "A smaller airliner could lose two windows and still continue to control pressurization."

The pilots' union insists guns would only be used by the captain and co-pilot if terrorist hijackers manage to penetrate the cockpit doors, which the FAA now requires be closed and locked in flight.

The public comment period ends Feb. 14. People can voice their opinions by logging onto the FAA's Web site and accessing the Federal Register on the armed-pilots issue.