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Pilot groups unified on arming flight crew

The nation’s leading airline pilot organizations are unified in their quest to allow commercial pilots to carry firearms in cockpits as a way to beef up flight security in the wake of Sept. 11.

The groups, which wrapped up meetings this week, sent a joint letter to President Bush and key members of his administration asking them to implement provisions of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which Bush signed into law last November.

According to the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance and a number of lawmakers, the law contains language that allows pilots to be armed. But the regulations must first be approved and enacted by John Magaw, under secretary of transportation for security.

The letter asks the administration to assist “in the immediate development and implementation of a program to defend the American traveling public with” armed pilots. APSA officials said it was delivered to Chris Henick, deputy assistant to the president, on Wednesday.

“This meeting and our letter to President Bush indicate the unified resolve of the nation’s 90,000 professional airline pilots on the issue of arming pilots with firearms to counter the terrorist threat,” said Capt. Tracy Price, chairman of APSA. “Pilots are not asking for any additional compensation for participation in this program – they only want the opportunity to be screened and trained in the use of firearms as a last and final line of defense of their passengers, crew and innocent civilians on the ground.”

A copy of the letter was sent to Magaw, as well as Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Nicholas Sabatini, associate administrator for regulation and certification at the Federal Aviation Administration, and Carol Hallet, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, a trade organization for U.S. airlines.

In the letter, pilots urged the president to implement a “flight deck protection program” that would:

“If the unthinkable happens again,” said the letter, referring to the Sept. 11 hijackings, “there must be a means provided for our flight crews to defeat any hijacker who breaches the flight deck with a weapon and attempts to destroy the aircraft.”

The alternative, said the letter, was to order a U.S. fighter plane to engage the hijacked commercial jet and shoot it down, killing a planeload of “innocent passengers.”

The letter said each pilots’ group “has independently assessed and recommended the best way to implement a plan to arm our flight crews,” and “specific recommendations” have been sent to the FAA during a public commentary period that ended Feb. 14.

The groups “stand ready to immediately assist” the Bush administration “in the establishment” of its flight deck protection program, the letter said.

Representatives from APSA, the Airline Pilots Association, the Allied Pilots Association, the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations and Capt. Jon Weaks, president of Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, signed the letter.

The pilots, in their letter, said crews “must have lethal weapons as a last line of defense against well-coordinated, highly trained teams of terrorists.” But some in the administration, including Ridge, have said they don’t believe arming pilots is the answer to increased airliner security.

“I don’t think we want to equip our pilots with firearms. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Ridge said in published comments March 5. “Where would it end?”

FAA officials have said, however, that most people who responded to the public comment period said they preferred pilots were armed.

Neither TSA nor the White House returned phone calls seeking comment. President Bush has not discussed publicly whether or not he supports arming pilots.

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