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Senate approves plan to allow armed pilots

Pilots, seen as the last line of defense against hijackers, would first need to have firearms training.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

Pilots, seen as the last line of defense against hijackers, would first need to have firearms training.

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to allow airline pilots to carry guns.

Just an hour before the vote, the Bush administration warned that the program faces serious logistical and budgetary hurdles, but senators cast aside those concerns and said it was crucial to give pilots the right to protect themselves against hijackers.

"We need to give the crew and passengers a last line of defense," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of the co-sponsors of the gun amendment. "We cannot allow passengers and crews to be on a plane without an air marshal and have no line of defense before being shot down by our military."

The gun amendment, attached to the bill that would create a new Department of Homeland Security, passed 87-6. The House passed a similar provision on its Homeland Security bill, so the gun program is likely to be included when the bill goes to President Bush this fall.

The amendment would allow pilots who undergo training to be deputized as volunteer law enforcement officers and allowed to carry guns.

Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson both voted in favor of the gun amendment.

The Senate vote was surprisingly lopsided. A few months ago, the proposal had little support. But many senators changed their minds after talking with airline pilots, who launched an aggressive lobbying campaign.

The Bush administration had been staunchly opposed to the idea until this week. An hour before the vote, the administration sent a letter that indicated the program was probably inevitable, but warned that it faces serious hurdles.

In the letter to Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., Transportation Security Administration chief James M. Loy said as many as 85,000 pilots could be eligible for the program, which could lead to huge training and administrative costs. He estimated the program could cost as much $900-million to launch and about $250-million per year after that. However, not all pilots are expected to participate, so the ultimate costs are likely to be lower.

Loy said a recent review by the TSA has concluded that pilots should be individually responsible for their guns and should carry them to and from the aircraft in lockboxes. The alternative -- having the guns stored in planes and maintained by airline employees -- poses greater security risks, he said.

Loy said the pilots should get extensive training in how to use the guns. The training must specify when the guns can be used and how to coordinate with federal air marshals. It should involve simulated aircraft, such as the ones used by air marshals at their training center in Atlantic City, N.J.

Among the other issues mentioned by Loy:

Cockpits will need to be modified with special sleeves "to allow ready access" to the guns.

The federal program could clash with gun laws in other countries. "Pilots flying international routes for a U.S. carrier must comply with gun control laws abroad," he wrote.

The government will have to hire many new employees to oversee a gun program. "A worldwide program of this size would require sizable staff and support." He said the TSA's current budget "does not allow for further work in this area, which raises the question of who will bear the cost of this potentially expensive program."

The airlines have also opposed the program.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta this week, executives from the major airlines called the gun program "ill-advised" unless the government does a thorough study of the possible consequences.

The airline chiefs said that until questions about money, logistics and training can be resolved, the deployment of guns "raises a serious and unnecessary risk for both passengers and crew members."

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