Mineta, Bureaucrats Stall Effort to Arm Pilots

Members of Congress are becoming frustrated with bureaucrats who have put roadblocks in the way of a program to arm airline pilots that Congress first authorized months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Three years later, only an estimated 4,000 of the more than 95,000 commercial pilots have participated in the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. But this lack of participation does not indicate a lack of pilot interest, proponents say. They claim the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has intentionally stymied the program.

A soon-to-be-released poll from the pro-gun Airline Pilots Security Alliance indicates upwards of 50,000 commercial pilots would like to become FFDOs, but are reluctant to participate because, as the program has been implemented by TSA, they can only train at a remote desert facility in Artesia, N.M., and they aren’t allowed to carry their firearm in a holster outside the cockpit of their plane. Instead, they must carry it around in a bulky 6-pound lockbox.

The program has faced an uphill battle from the start. Anti-gun Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, the lone Democrat in the Bush Cabinet, refused to establish the program after Congress authorized it in November 2001. It took additional congressional action a year later, in December 2002, to force TSA to act. Problems remain, however, that lawmakers say TSA has refused to fix.

Congressional efforts to modify the program have run into obstacles on Capitol Hill as well. The House version of the just-passed intelligence bill included language offered by Rep. John Mica (R.-Fla.) to improve the program, but Senate opponents–notably anti-gun Senators Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) and Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.)–saw that it was cut before final passage, according to congressional aides.

Two leading proponents of the program–Sen. Jim Bunning (R.-Ky.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.)–told HUMAN EVENTS they were frustrated by the inaction. Both placed blame on TSA for failing to adopt “common-sense” changes.

“The people who are pilots are professionals. We wouldn’t get on the plane if we didn’t have faith in them, so I’m just absolutely shocked that there would be any concern,” said Wilson, who introduced a bill in April with Bunning to do away with the lockboxes.

Even though lawmakers and pilots have complained about the lockboxes, TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O’Sullivan said they’re not going away. “The way in which the legislation was written originally said that the area of jurisdiction for federal flight deck officers is the cockpit,” she said. (Earlier this year, however, TSA took the liberty of changing its practice of requiring the lockboxes to be stowed with checked luggage. After several firearms were reported missing, pilots were told to carry the lockbox at all times.)

Today, an estimated 100 pilots are trained each week, although TSA, citing security risks, refuses to release official figures. The facility’s location–Artesia is at least four hours from Albuquerque, N.M., El Paso and Lubbock, Tex.–has slowed its growth, according to Dave Mackett, a pilot and president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. TSA’s O’Sullivan disputed the charges, and said the TSA would expand if demand were to increase.

Bunning, meanwhile, said he would introduce legislation next year to keep pressure on TSA. “I think there is no question that we will get major improvements on the flexibility on how you carry and the things that we put into our bill,” he told HUMAN EVENTS. “It’s a bureaucratic layer we’re going to have to cut through.”