Published September 14, 2003 Sunday, in The Chicago Tribune

Pilots decry pace of gun program

By Meredith Cohn, Tribune Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun.

In a series of protests at several airports around the country, pilots have complained that federal officials are moving too slowly in allowing them to carry guns in the cockpit--a hotly debated change that Congress approved following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 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 training. That represents about a third of the nation's 120,000 commercial pilots, though that includes about 35,000 cargo pilots who do not qualify for the program.

"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.

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 federal Transportation Security Agency, however, said it has proceeded responsibly with the program.

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the agency believes that the public supports arming pilots but said the process should not be hurried.

Rhatigan said the program began in February with $25 million, and the agency has spent $8 million on the training. Congress allocated another $25 million for training pilots in 2004, she said.

"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. About 70 percent of commercial pilots are former members of the military and 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 Air Marshalls, who are armed federal officers.

"It's been two years since the attacks of Sept. 11, and we only have less than 150 pilots approved to carry a firearm," he said.

Pilots decry pace of gun program
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