WASHINGTON - Fewer than 100 pilots were certified to carry guns on commercial flights in the eight months after Congress approved the idea, and pilots are blaming the slow pace on the Transportation Security Administration.
The pilots say that with the TSA freezing hiring in the air marshal program and the government warning that al-Qaida might try more suicide hijackings, it's more important than ever to get weapons into cockpits.
The first 44 pilots to complete the five-day weapons training program were designated "flight deck officers" April 19 and began flying with weapons. The second class finished last month.
Rep. John L. Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said he's angry that the TSA is moving at "a snail's pace."
"You can't imagine my frustration," said Mica, a Florida Republican. "This should be a quick orientation."
TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said the pace will pick up once summer is over.
"We have hundreds in the pipeline ready to go," he said, adding that as of Aug. 1, classes of no more than 50 pilots are being held every week.
Congress is increasingly dissatisfied with the TSA. Lawmakers say the agency, which has a $900 million shortfall, has grown too large, too fast, doesn't properly prioritize spending and is slow to respond to queries from Congress.
The TSA had opposed arming pilots on grounds that heightened security at airports, bulletproof cockpit doors and increasingly vigilant passengers made it unnecessary. Critics also said adding weapons to airplanes is inherently dangerous.
Pilots lobbied Congress, arguing that they could supplement the air marshals, who cover a small percentage of the 35,000 daily flights in the United States.
TSA chief James Loy grudgingly endorsed the idea after it became apparent that Congress would pass such a directive.
Under the program, pilots take a week of classes, weapons instruction and hand-to-hand combat drills at the TSA Law Enforcement Academy in Glynco, Ga. They also must go through background checks and psychological testing that can take two months to complete.
Johnson said the TSA thinks pilots must be submitted to the same kind of screening that other federal law enforcement officers go through before they're sworn in.
Mica calls the psychological testing "nonsense."
"It's been captured by the bureaucrats, and they've run amok," he said of the program.
Mica is circulating a letter in Congress urging the TSA to turn over the program to the private sector. Pilots are lobbying to move it to another agency, preferably the FBI.
Owen Mills, owner of a private firearms training facility in Paulden, Ariz., said he would charge about $3,000 per pilot for a week of training. The TSA says it costs about $6,200 for training, testing and background checks.
Pilots are worried about the TSA's plan to move the training academy to a federal law enforcement training center in Artesia, N.M. They say that will further delay getting more pilots certified to carry weapons.
The 47 employees at the Georgia facility also are upset. The TSA has said the government won't pay to relocate the staff to New Mexico, angering those who gave up careers and moved to Georgia less than a year ago.
Two weeks ago, the employees wrote to Loy saying that another relocation would "mean personal financial ruin and emotional devastation."
Johnson said the agency will pay bonuses of several thousand dollars to those who move to New Mexico and is trying to find jobs within the government for the rest.
Capt. Steve Luckey, a retired pilot who helped develop the training program, said the TSA should work to bolster the pilots program. It is more cost-effective than air marshals and serves the same purpose.
Pilots train on their own time and pay for transportation, room and board. Air marshals are government employees.
Congress gave the air marshal program more than $500 million last year. In April, TSA set aside $8 million to train pilots through next month.
"It's a very expensive program," Luckey said of the air marshals. "The pilots are almost free."