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Senate Approves Arming Pilots

Terror: The bill passes, 87 to 6, despite concerns from the White House and airlines. The cost of training is estimated at more than $1 billion.

September 06, 2002|RICHARD SIMON and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to allow airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, a controversial move designed to strengthen the aviation security system put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With the House having passed similar legislation, the prospect that pilots eventually will be armed appears significantly improved, despite concerns by the Bush administration over cost, legal liability and other issues.

"Will someone please explain to me the logic that says we can trust someone with a Boeing 747 in bad weather, but not with a Glock 9-millimeter?" asked Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) in supporting the amendment to homeland security legislation. It was approved 87 to 6.

The action came as the government announced that thousands of airline passengers flying into New York and Washington airports on Sept. 11 will be required to stay in their seats for the last 30 minutes of flight because of increased security for the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

The Senate measure allowing pilots to carry guns still must be reconciled with the House bill. Bush has threatened to veto the larger Senate homeland security bill drafted by the Democrats over other concerns, but it was uncertain what the president's position would be on the specific issue of arming pilots.

Under the Senate measure, pilots would have to undergo training to be permitted to carry guns aboard planes. Self-defense training also would be offered to flight attendants. The administration estimates that as many as 85,000 pilots could be eligible for training, though presumably fewer would volunteer.

Just months ago, the proposal to arm pilots faced long odds. But pilots waged an intense lobbying campaign, portraying the air transportation system as still vulnerable to attack and calling guns in the cockpit "the last line of defense" against would-be hijackers.

"Members of Congress have come to understand what the American people have known for months--only lethal force can stop lethal intent," said American Airlines co-pilot Al Aitken, who helped to lobby lawmakers. "Tepid measures in response to terrorist attacks and hijackings will not provide the kind of security the American people want and deserve."

Congress initially left the decision on arming pilots to the Transportation Security Administration. In May, administration officials came out against arming pilots, citing post-Sept. 11 security measures, such as reinforcing cockpit doors and expanding the ranks of armed federal air marshals.

The Air Transport Assn., which represents airlines, expressed concerns about arming pilots, saying there are too many unanswered questions, such as the effect of a misfired gun on pressurized aircraft.

"While we are spending literally billions of dollars to keep dangerous weapons off of aircraft, the idea of intentionally introducing thousands of deadly weapons into the system appears to be dangerously counter-productive," said a letter to Congress signed by 21 airline chief executives.

But lawmakers--among the most frequent fliers--drew on their own flying experiences to cite security shortcomings.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a gun-control advocate whose support of the legislation helped give it momentum, said that although the number of air marshals is classified, there are not enough to put on every flight.

"If I could stand before you and assure you that I believe the skies are safe, I wouldn't be here supporting this bill," Boxer told her colleagues.

Noting that the president has directed F-16s to shoot down commercial aircraft taken over by hijackers, Boxer added: "Imagine if that happened and we knew we hadn't taken action at least to give our pilots a chance."

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee, said arming pilots would be unnecessary once permanent reinforcements for cockpit doors are in place by April.

"What you want to do is get a secure door to that cockpit," he said. "That's the last line of defense, not a gun.... Once the door is secure and there's any disturbance whatsoever in the cabin, they go immediately to the ground and law enforcement meets them there."

In the end, Hollings voted for the bill--after he won approval of an amendment that would require pilots to lock the cockpit door.

Training airline pilots to properly use firearms against hijackers would cost more than $1 billion, money that the new Transportation Security Administration does not have, the Bush administration said in a letter to Congress on Thursday.

TSA Director James M. Loy said a program to train pilots would cost $900 million to set up and $250 million a year to run. "TSA's current budget does not allow for further work in this area, which raises the question of who will bear the cost," Loy said.

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