Pilots get help from House on gun issue

Thursday, June 20, 2002

By Richard Simon ~ Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Heeding arguments from pilots that they should be the "last line of defense" against airplane hijackings, the House on Wednesday moved toward approving a test program to allow them to carry guns in the cockpit.

Although a number of aviation security measures have been enacted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had decided against letting pilots arm themselves.

But pilot unions responded with intense lobbying on Capitol Hill, and on Wednesday the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee approved a measure to create a two-year trial program in which up to 2 percent of airline pilots -- an estimated 1,400 -- would be trained and deputized as "federal flight deck officers" with authority to carry guns in the cockpit. Flight attendants would receive self-defense training under the bill.

The subcommittee's approval makes it likely that the measure will pass the full House. But it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where the chairman of the Transportation Committee, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., adamantly opposes the arming of pilots.

The Bush administration has not taken a position on the proposed test program, and the bill's backers are hoping that the White House can be persuaded to back it.

In a decision announced last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected requests to let all pilots carry guns. The agency contended that pilots should concentrate on flying the plane and leave the job of fending off hijackers to federal air marshals. One of the security-related laws enacted since Sept. 11 has significantly increased the number of marshals assigned to flights.

But pilots inundated Congress with e-mails, letters and phone calls, arguing that guns in the cockpit were a necessary part of heightened aviation security. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., even received notes from pilots while flying, pressing their case.

"Of all the people who look at aviation security, there's no one that has more experience than a pilot," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the subcommittee chairman. "Each day they see and they know the weaknesses of the system, and they are asking to arm and defend themselves."

Republicans are leading the charge to overturn the administration's decision. But a number of key Democrats have joined them, saying that guns in the cockpit might be necessary because of the time it will take to put other security measures into effect.

"Until we reach a point where we have a high level of confidence in our passenger screening system, I believe that they've got a very strong case to make," DeFazio said.

Pilot unions applauded the committee action. Duane Woerth, a Northwest Airlines captain and president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the legislation was necessary "in light of the fact that our aviation security system is evolving."

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