Too expensive to arm pilots?

By Jon Dougherty

An airline pilots’ group that supports arming flight crews as a “last line of defense” against potential terrorist hijackers says training cost figures cited by the government are seriously over-estimated.

Capt. Tracy Price, chairman of the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance, praised the Senate’s passage of a bill on Thursday allowing airline pilots to be armed. But in a statement released yesterday, he criticized the administration’s start-up figure of $800 to $900 million to train as many as 85,000 commercial air pilots who volunteer to pack guns in cockpits.

“While the overwhelming majority of both Houses of Congress – along with a large majority of safety experts, American citizens and airline pilots – see arming pilots as a long overdue, common-sense response to the terrorist threat,” Price said, “there are those in the administration that remain opposed. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is one of them.”

Mineta, who also served in former President Clinton’s Cabinet, warned this summer that start-up costs for an armed-pilot program could cost nearly $1 billion, with an annual retention cost of about $250 million.

Administration officials said after the 87-6 Senate vote that the Transportation Security Administration, which would oversee the training, does not have that kind of money in its budget.

Professional firearms trainers like Dr. Ignatius Piazza, founder and president of Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Las Vegas, also says the government’s figures are too high.

In fact, Piazza said he could do it for about $2,500 per pilot, or $212.5 million – a quarter of what Mineta says it would cost – were he even interested in charging for his services, which he’s not.

Last year, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Piazza made an offer to airlines that he would train their pilots for free, an offer he repeated to WorldNetDaily in an interview yesterday.

“I can’t speak for other training organizations, but Front Sight offers to train any commercial pilot authorized to carry a gun to defend the cockpit free of charge,” he said. “We’re trying to do our part to help reduce any costs associated with that. All the airlines have to do is get their pilots to Las Vegas.”

Figures cited by Price were even less.

“Many high-quality firearms training institutes have said that this training can be accomplished for less than $1,500 per pilot,” he said.

According to Transportation Department figures, by comparison it would cost taxpayers more than $10,500 each to train pilots in handgun use.

But Price said to get to that figure, “Secretary Mineta assumes an unnecessarily long training program, and that 100 percent of all commercial pilots will volunteer to participate in the program,” including pilots of very small passenger aircraft with few seats.

Officials at the Transportation Department and TSA did not return calls asking how Mineta arrived at the figure of $800-900 million to initially train pilots.

Despite differences over the cost figures cited by the administration, Price said APSA was “extremely pleased” that the Senate bill – which was attached as an amendment to Homeland Security legislation by the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., and cosponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. – passed.

“We are convinced that it will provide an excellent foundation for an armed-pilot program,” Price said.

A similar measure passed the House July 10 on a vote of 310-113. Price expressed confidence “minor differences” between both bills could be worked out.

Other airline pilots’ unions and organizations were pleased with the Senate vote.

“With the tremendous vote in favor of the Boxer-Smith Amendment, our nation’s representatives are one step closer to augmenting aviation security to an unprecedented level through the creation of a program to protect commercial aircraft from terrorist acts by arming airline pilots,” said Capt. Duane E. Woerth, president of the 66,000-strong Air Line Pilots Association International, representing U.S. and Canadian pilots.

“We are confident that the program created today by this legislation will not only add a genuine security enhancement in the very near term, but also give passengers and crews the added confidence that their government had provided all possible resources needed to defend against a terrorist hijacking,” said Woerth.

Meanwhile, the White House expressed some reservation about the passage of the Senate measure, even though President Bush publicly reversed himself earlier this week and said he would back a trial program that sought to arm around 1,400 – or 2 percent – of airline pilots.

“The administration believes there are a number of security concerns that need to be addressed as Congress proceeds” in its debate over arming pilots, Presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in response to a question by WorldNetDaily at yesterday’s White House briefing.

Specifically, the administration is concerned about the length of training time pilots will complete, how they will be taught to fire weapons in the “confined space” of a cockpit, the consideration of passengers and the “integrity of the airplane itself,” Fleischer said.

“These issues are very important,” he added. “The president hopes [lawmakers] will take a thoughtful approach to these issues. …”

Administration suggestions included a “detailed, effective” training program and lock boxes for weapons aboard aircraft.

But Capt. Robert Lambert, communications director for APSA, said suggestions like that were sure to drive up the cost of implementing the program.

“You want expense, this is where you’ll get it,” he told WorldNetDaily.

He said airlines would have to take aircraft out of service to install lock boxes; maintenance personnel would have to be trained to service and take care of them; and planes that are parked overnight with weapons aboard “become a massive security problem.”

APSA has proposed making pilots who volunteer for the armed-pilot program be made special agents of the federal government, which would permit them to carry a weapon concealed while in the performance of duty and alleviate the problems created by the Bush administration’s suggestions.

“[The administration] is acting like this concealed-carry thing is a big deal,” said Lambert. “We have [government agents] carrying concealed weapons on planes all the time.

“Give me a break. We’re making this harder than we have to,” he said.

Piazza said his offer to train pilots free was not an offer to the government. “It was made to the airlines,” he said.

“We’re trying to help private industry do the right thing and make the airlines more secure for all their passengers. We’re already paying the government for this training through our tax dollars.”

“We can do it cheaper than” the federal government, he said.

WorldNetDaily White House correspondent Les Kinsolving contributed to this report.

Related stories:

Bush’s armed-pilot plan called ‘bad joke’

Pilots press Senate for guns in cockpits

Mineta reverses stand on armed pilot issue

Boxer signs onto armed pilot bill

Petition seeks to force armed pilot issue

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