New Demands for Armed Pilots
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
As the number of armed pilots aboard U.S. jetliners has steadily expanded in recent years, the program is showing signs of growing pains. Pilots and their labor groups complain about a lack of supervision and the difficulty in finding time to participate in training courses.
Worried that pilots' handgun skills may be eroding, federal security officials are launching a refresher training program next month. Armed pilots must attend a two-day mandatory course at a training facility near Atlantic City three to five years after getting their guns. Some pilots have already taken prototype refresher courses that are being evaluated by authorities, said officials with the Federal Air Marshal Service, which runs the program.
"Using a weapon is a perishable skill, and we want to ensure they have the appropriate training," said John A. Novak, an assistant director with the air marshal service. "We are taking the law enforcement culture and applying it to the experienced professionals of the aviation community."
The controversial gun program, which started in 2003, was backed enthusiastically by pilots and their unions as a way to prevent terrorist hijackings after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. When the program began, union officials said as many as 30,000 pilots would eventually carry firearms in cockpits.
The number of armed pilots is well short of that number, but there are now more armed pilots than there are federal air marshals, according to sources familiar with the program.
Federal officials requested that The Washington Post not publish the exact number of armed pilots for security reasons.
To be allowed to carry handguns in cockpits, pilots undergo psychological testing and a seven-day training course. They must visit a firing range to demonstrate their shooting skills every six months. So far, there have been no incidents in which a pilot has fired his weapon aboard an airliner.
Pilots said the refresher course was a good idea but could prompt some to leave the program. Those who participate are not paid for their time. They also are not reimbursed for travel, lodging or food expenses.
"This is going to cost me $2,000," said one pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his membership in the program does not permit him to speak publicly. "If this was a really great program, they would treat us like adults."
Federal officials said they were working to find other sites across the country for the training. They said they have not noticed any increase in pilots quitting the program and that the number of applicants has remained steady. There was a 300 percent surge in applicants in the weeks after British authorities said in August that they uncovered a plot to blow up jetliners, according to the officials.
Pilots said they also wish there were more supervision between visits to firing ranges and the longer refresher training. Among the ideas they have passed to federal officials: offering periodic classes at airports, more Internet-based training and a monthly newsletter on tactics. Pilots groups say such measures are needed to ensure that the program keeps pace with its growth.
"In 2003, this was a noble experiment," said Bob Hesselbein, an airline pilot and chairman of the national security committee for the Air Line Pilots Association. "Today, it's an institution. . . . As the institution grows, the institutional pillars aren't being built with it."
Officials said they were working to improve communication with pilots but added that they must also satisfy the demands of training armed pilots while minting new ones. Each week, several dozen newly armed pilots graduate from a training facility in New Mexico. The program's budget has remained steady, about $25 million a year, despite increases in the number of armed pilots.
Federal officials said they were taking other steps to address complaints raised by pilots. They plan to issue police-like badges to pilots in coming months to help them better identify themselves in a crisis. And they said they are taking undisclosed steps to make it easier for pilots to transport their weapons to and from work.
Hesselbein said his group would push for legislation requiring airlines to grant unpaid leave for the training, which could be tough for some pilots because of their schedules. The airlines, which generally resisted the creation of the program, are expected to fight such a proposal.