WASHINGTON -- No guns in the cockpit, the Bush administration decided Tuesday, saying pilots should concentrate on flying their airliners and let trained air marshals defend against possible terrorists.
Transportation Undersecretary John Magaw's announcement was criticized by some lawmakers and the pilots' unions, who said they would try to overturn the decision.
Magaw told the Senate Commerce Committee that air marshals are better equipped to undergo the specialized training to safely handle guns on airplanes. The pilots, behind newly strengthened cockpit doors, can steer the aircraft to throw hijackers off balance and should have cameras installed so they can see what is happening in the cabin, he said.
"Pilots need to concentrate on flying the plane," Magaw said. "My feeling is you secure the cockpit, and if something does happen on that plane, they really have to be in control of the aircraft. Pilots should not have firearms in the cockpit."
Most flights do not have air marshals on board, though the Transportation Security Administration is hiring and training more.
Magaw said he was still deciding whether to allow nonlethal weapons, such as stun guns. Flight attendant unions have been pushing for stun guns in the cabin, since pilots are no longer supposed to leave the cockpit to help quell a disturbance.
"Guns in the cockpit offer a false sense of security because it doesn't do anything to protect the people in the back of the cabin that are left to die if there's an attacker on board," said Dawn Deeks, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. "We need to make sure there are defensive capabilities in the cabin."
The Air Transport Association, the trade organization for the major airlines, was pleased. The group cited the "unintended consequences of arming pilots with firearms and the potential dangers posed to innocent passengers and other crew members."
An advocacy group representing passengers, the Air Travelers Association, criticized Magaw's decision.
"We agree that airline pilots should have flying as their first priority, but what do pilots do if terrorists actually make their way into the cockpit?" association president David Stempler said.
Air Line Pilots Association President Duane Woerth said the government is now prepared to shoot down a hijacked airplane. "We do not understand why these same government officials refuse to give pilots a last chance to prevent such a tragedy," he said.
The airline security law passed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gave Magaw the power to decide whether to arm pilots. But now some lawmakers want to overrule him. The House aviation subcommittee is scheduled to consider legislation on Thursday.
"When you see the gaps in the system, I want every protection in place," said subcommittee chairman John Mica, R-Fla. "I can't for the life of me figure out why a simple thing like this isn't in place right now."
A bipartisan group of senators is backing similar legislation. One sponsor, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said an armed pilot could stop suicide terrorists before they take over a plane.
"If we have people on that airplane who are willing to die in the commitment of an act, I see no reason to believe they shouldn't die before they get it done," Burns said.
But Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., said he would not consider the bill. Instead, he has introduced legislation requiring cockpit doors to remain closed during a flight, not even to be opened to allow a pilot to go to the bathroom.
"You can put the rule in right now and cut out all the arguments about pistols and stun guns," Hollings said.
"It is not the last word, I can guarantee you that," said American Airlines pilot Al Aitken, deputy chairman of the Allied Pilots Association's Committee for the Armed Defense of the Cockpit. "How easy will it be for me to concentrate on flying an airplane when a terrorist breaks through the cockpit door and tries to slit my throat?"