WASHINGTON -- Fewer than 100 pilots were certified to carry guns on commercial flights in the eight months after Congress approved the idea, and pilots are blaming the slow pace on the Transportation Security Administration.
The pilots say that with the TSA freezing hiring in the air marshal program and the government warning al-Qaida may try more suicide hijackings, it's more important than ever to get weapons in the cockpit.
"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 September 11."
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.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, 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."
TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said the pace will pick up once summer is over.
"We have hundreds in the pipeline ready to go," he said, adding that as of Aug. 1 classes of no more than 50 pilots are being held every week.
The criticism of the pilots' program comes amid growing dissatisfaction with the TSA 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. They also must go through background checks and psychological testing that 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."
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 47 employees at the Georgia facility also are upset. The TSA has said the government won't pay to relocate the staff to New Mexico, angering those who gave up careers and moved to Georgia less than a year ago.
Two weeks ago the employees wrote to Loy saying another relocation "will mean personal financial ruin and emotional devastation."
Johnson said the agency will pay bonuses of several thousand dollars to those who move to New Mexico and is trying to find jobs within the government for the rest.
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.
"In Glynco they were doing drills on lawn chairs," TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said.
Capt. Steve Luckey, a retired pilot who helped develop the training program, said the TSA should work to bolster the pilots' program. It is more cost-effective than air marshals and serves the same purpose, he said.
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.
"It's a very expensive program," Luckey said of the air marshals. "The pilots are almost free."
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Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov