In May, Under Secretary of Transportation for Security John Magaw, head of the new Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for airport security, said he is opposed to arming pilots, as is Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. President George Bush has said there are "better ways" to protect airline passengers and enhance transportation security.
Despite opposition from the executive branch of the government, House members voted 310 to 113 to approve H.R. 4635, the Arming of Pilots Against Terrorism Act, which calls for pilots to be trained by the new security agency and deputized as federal flight deck officers. Once trained and deputized, they would then allowed to carry guns on domestic and international flights.
"Do you really think that 9/11 would have happened if our pilots had been armed, as they should have been armed?" asked House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R, Alaska) during the House debate on the issue.
Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said his group is extremely pleased with the vote, adding, "Voluntary arming of airline pilots is another necessary layer in our overall efforts to provide a robust and effective defense against terrorism."
He said the pilots hope that the Senate and the White House "recognize that the overwhelming House vote reflects enormous public support for arming pilots, and that they will work toward making this a successful program."
The legislation is expected to face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D., S.C.), has blocked the matter from coming to a vote on the Senate floor. Supporters are scrambling, trying to attach the proposal as an amendment to another bill.
A spokesperson for Hollings said allowing weapons to be brought on planes, even by pilots, "counterproductive," adding, "We should lock the cockpit door, create a cabin that's absolutely secure, and that ends the threat."
White House spokesperson Claire Buchan noted the administration had improved security screening at airports, strengthened cockpit doors and added air marshals on many flights. "With regard to the proposals to arm pilots, security experts and transportation experts have made clear that they view other methods as being more effective," she said.
H.B. 4635 includes language that makes cabin crew security training mandatory, the first direct order to the airline industry to provide protections for the cabin crew and passengers.
Patricia Friend, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO, acknowledged airport and cockpit security have improved since 9/11, but added, "cabin crew and passengers' lives have been left with no additional protection. [Passage of the bill] is the first step in ensuring that flight attendants finally get the comprehensive training we need to do our jobs protecting our passengers and the cockpit from terrorist threats," she said.
Friend sang a different tune earlier this month before provisions to offer defense training to cabin crew members was added, saying the bill told terrorists, "'We'll sacrifice the passengers and the cabin crew, but not the plane.' As a cabin crew member and frequent passenger, I resent that."
Opponents of the measure are already lobbying the Senate. The Violence Policy Center (VPC) strongly denounced passage of the "Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act." The group points out that law enforcement personnel, who receive extensive and ongoing firearms training, have only an 18 to 22 percent chance of hitting their targets in armed confrontations. One study cited by the group found that 21 percent of police officers killed with a handgun were shot with their own service weapon.
"The House of Representatives has collectively misjudged the effectiveness of guns in the cockpits of our nation's commercial planes," said Kristen Rand, VPC legislative director. "In a nation where states prohibit the use of cell phones while driving, we are relying on pilots of passenger planes, where hundreds of lives are at stake, to be both policeman and pilot."