WASHINGTON - In a series of protests yesterday at several airports around the country, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, pilots complained that federal officials are moving too slowly in allowing them to carry guns in the cockpit - a hotly debated change that Congress approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly two years ago.
The Airline Pilots' Security Alliance, a group formed since the attacks to advocate air travel safety measures, said that less than 200 of 40,000 passenger and cargo pilots who want the voluntary training have completed the required course.
The 40,000 figure is about a third of the nation's 120,000 commercial pilots, although that includes about 35,000 cargo pilots who do not qualify for the program.
The pilots say they have strong backing from members of Congress, including Sens. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, a Republican, and Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, and GOP Reps. John L. Mica of Florida and Don Young of Alaska.
"I haven't gone through the program, and I don't want to under these circumstances," said David Mackett, a Baltimore-based pilot and executive vice president of the alliance. "The [Transportation Security Agency] has made the process too onerous."
The federal Transportation Security Agency, however, said it has proceeded responsibly with a program that puts lethal weapons aboard airplanes.
Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the agency, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, said she believes that the public largely supports arming pilots but said the process should not be hurried.
Pilots are being trained as federal flight deck officers, which gives them the right to carry lethal weapons, she said, and it was "common sense" for the agency to do its own extensive testing and training.
The pilots' group, however, called on the agency to modify its procedures to speed the training.
Mackett said pilots must pay their own way and take their own time for a one-week training course in Georgia and are subjected to extensive psychological and background testing. The evaluation, he said, appeared to be repeat testing that the pilots have already passed to become commercial pilots.
He said he has a list of 20 pilots who were rejected for the program to be deputized as federal flight deck officers and many more have refused to apply.
The federal agency held the first training class in April and declined, for security reasons, to reveal how many have completed the program.
Rhatigan said the program began in February with $25 million, and the agency has spent $8 million on training so far. Congress allocated another $25 million for training pilots in 2004, she said.
She said the training would soon move to a new facility in southeast New Mexico where more pilots can be trained in realistic situations.
"Every week since mid-July we've graduated a new class," she said. "This is a voluntary program, and first off, not everyone graduates.
"This is not a cookie-cutter solution. It's a well-thought-out program. They go through extensive background and psychological testing before training and it's very rigorous training physically and mentally. We need to put them in an environment where they feel comfortable with a firearm."
John R. Lott, who has studied gun control as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, questioned the necessity of the agency's approach during the pilots' press conference at Reagan airport. About 70 percent of commercial pilots are former members of the military and already trained to use weapons, Lott said.
Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance, added that the terrorist threats remain and that only a small fraction of the 35,000 daily U.S. flights are accompanied by armed federal air marshals.
"It's been almost two years since the attacks of Sept. 11, and we only have less than 150 pilots approved to carry a firearm," he said.
"While the Department of Homeland Security warns that al-Qaeda has threatened to use commercial aviation here in the United States and abroad to further their cause, their colleagues at [the transportation agency] are preventing the fastest and most effective deterrent, which is to arm pilots in the cockpit as a last line of defense against an attack," Lambert said.