With passage of the homeland security bill looking more likely, some pilots -- whom the bill would authorize to carry guns -- have begun pushing to get firearms training from the FBI or private schools.
Those pilots say the Transportation Security Administration, which would be directed to run the armed pilots program, doesn't have enough facilities to train all the pilots who want to carry guns. Pilot groups estimate that about 30,000 pilots -- about half of those eligible -- will volunteer for the program.
The TSA opposed arming pilots, but the bill would require the agency to set up a training program three months after it is signed into law.
"We prefer pilots be treated like any other federal law enforcement officer," said Stephen A. Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's national flight security committee. Luckey said he has been discussing the training program with FBI and TSA officials over the past several months. "This is not a casual program. It's just like being a federal agent."
The House and the Senate passed separate bills this year that would allow pilots to carry guns and be trained as "federal flight deck officers." The measure was approved by both houses of Congress this week as part of legislation to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.
The House passed the homeland security bill on Wednesday and the Senate is to vote on it today or early next week.
The TSA and FBI have discussed the possibility of using the FBI's training facility in Quantico, Va., to teach pilots how to use guns, TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said yesterday. He said he did not know whether TSA facilities, which are used to train federal air marshals, could accommodate the pilots too.
The FBI is ready to assist the TSA if Congress tells it to, spokesman Paul Brannon said
Pilot groups said using an FBI facility or a certified privately owned facility supervised by the FBI would give them more places to train during their busy schedules.
Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), one of the sponsors of the bill to arm pilots, said it is intended to allow the TSA to contract out training. "We're not trying to micromanage it," Smith said. But "it makes more sense for private groups with FBI supervision" to run the program, because "the Transportation Department is not equipped" to do it, he said.
Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, a privately run company that has not previously solicited contracts with law enforcement agencies, said it is ready to order a cockpit and fuselage for its Las Vegas facility so it can begin training pilots. The TSA "just doesn't have the funding or facilities or manpower to train all the pilots and therefore it would be too expensive," said Ignatius Piazza, director of the center. He said he would charge TSA $1,000 per pilot for three days of specialized training.
The TSA said it would work with pilots and security experts. "How it's done, how it's delivered and measured -- all those questions will have to be answered as we go forward," Johnson said.
Already in dispute is how pilots would carry and store their guns. TSA director James M. Loy has said he would prefer that pilots keep guns in lockboxes. But some pilots want to carry guns in holsters because it would give them quick access to their weapons and they would be less likely to be stolen.
"If you put it in a [lockbox] and you carry it around, you are setting pilots up to be victims of armed robberies," said Scott Lewis, a director of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. "Criminals will know pilots are carrying around weapons."
The bill also calls for self-defense training for flight attendants, but not as much as the flight attendants' union had wanted.
"This language is the stripped-down version -- it doesn't have minimum number of hours of training," said Dawn Deeks, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. The group wanted 28 hours.
The homeland security bill also would extend by one year the Dec. 31 deadline for airports to screen all luggage for explosives.
Airports had pushed for the deadline extension because they fear that screening machines would take up too much space and create long lines in airport terminals. The bill would allow the TSA to designate any airport eligible for an extension, but agency officials said it would grant extensions to no more than 40 of the nation's 429 airports.