Saturday, September 07, 2002

Pilots welcome gun option

Group confident of law's passage

By James Pilcher,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Now that Congress has overwhelmingly approved allowing commercial airline pilots to carry guns, advocates say armed pilots could be flying by early next year.

        “It's a done deal now,” Anderson Township airline pilot Marc Feigenblattsaid Friday. Mr. Feigenblatt is vice chairman of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, a group of pilots which has fought for the right to be armed

        on duty. “We could have a bill signed within a couple of weeks and have armed pilots by early next year.”

        The Senate voted Thursday 87-6 to allow guns in the cockpit. The House

        passed an almost identical bill 310-113 on July 10. The only obstacle now is a veto by President Bush, whose administration initially opposed the idea but has since softened.

        Mr. Feigenblatt and others don't think a veto is likely because the Senate version was attached to a homeland security bill that the White House is trying to get passed.

   Here are the basic elements of the cockpit gun program approved by both the House and the Senate:
   Would be voluntary. Pilots who apply would undergo a background check similar to those for potential federal law enforcement agents. They would be considered federal “flight deck officers,” but would not receive any extra pay.
   Would include an extensive training program to be devised and conducted by a federal agency yet to be determined. The government would also supply the guns.
   Allows pilots to use force only if “the officer reasonably believes that the security of the aircraft is at risk.”
   Removes liability from the individual airlines or the pilots.
        A previous aviation security law, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, allows for guns in cockpits, but only with the approval of the airline and by the head of the Transportation Security Administration. This new legislation would remove those barriers.

        Administration officials have previously come out against arming pilots, but Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recently asked for a review of the issue.

        White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday that many issues still need to be worked out, such as where guns are stored, and how airlines would handle the absence of pilots for firearms training. The Transportation Security Administration has raised similar concerns.

        Still, “the president understands Congress's intent here (and) wants to work with Congress to provide this safety to passengers,” Mr. Fleischer said.

        The Senate and House versions call for a voluntary program that would turn pilots into federal officers who would use the guns only as a last resort if the cockpit were under attack.

        Those who volunteer and pass a rigorous background check would undergo federal training. The federal government also would pay for the guns.

        The transportation administration estimates the program could cost up to $900 million.

        Not all airline pilots endorse the idea, including Susanne Dortch of Mount Lookout, who said a gun would make the cockpit an even more tempting target.

        “It would just make us more vulnerable,” Ms. Dortch said.

        Airlines also remain opposed to the idea, even though both versions of the bill provide liability exemptions for pilots and airlines. Top executives of the nation's largest domestic carriers — including Delta Air Lines' chairman and chief executive officer Leo Mullin — sent a letter to every senator earlier this week raising safety concerns.

        “How often are firearms utilized by trained law enforcement officers lost, misplaced, stolen, fired accidentally or used against the officer carrying the weapon?” he asked in the letter.

        But Mr. Feigenblatt said he's confident that all the issues can be resolved.


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