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US Congress Divided on Arming Pilots - 2002-07-10

On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives has approved a bill to authorize airline pilots to carry and use a gun to protect the cockpit. Supporters say the legislation is needed to help prevent the kind of takeovers that allowed terrorists to crash commercial planes into the Pentagon, and World Trade Center in New York last September 11.

The Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act would create a program under which pilots who volunteer would be trained, and deputized, to use lethal force to protect the cockpit. Preference initially would be given to pilots with prior military or law enforcement backgrounds.

House debate underscored divisions that have emerged since September 11 over how best to safeguard both passengers and flight crews.

Proponents say pilots need a last line of defense against terrorists, or others who might attempt a cockpit takeover. Republican Congressman Don Young of Alaska said, "This is a bill, in fact, to defend those people who fly every day by the captain of the ship. That is his responsibility. If there is an infringement upon that cockpit by a terrorist, he has a right to eliminate that individual, to defend his passengers."

The Air Line Pilots Association, representing some 64,000 pilots with 45 airlines in the United States and Canada, supported the legislation.

However, opponents, including the Bush administration, said the risks outweigh the benefits. In a speech on the House floor, Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton emphasized putting guns in cockpits is not the solution. "The armed pilot is a very dangerous resort, that risks passengers, and planes," she said.

In a statement Wednesday, the Association of Flight Attendants voiced strong opposition to the House bill, saying it does nothing to protect passengers in the cabin.

Meanwhile, members of the Senate held a news conference in support of a similar measure there, co-sponsored by California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. She said, "Until that time, I believe that pilots who are carefully trained, and want to carry a gun, again this is a voluntary system, should be able to do so."

House and Senate sponsors point to recent revelations of airport security failures and the slow pace of installing stronger cockpit doors, as further justification for arming pilots.

In its original form, the House bill limited the number of pilots that could be armed to two percent of the total commercial pilot work force in the first two years of the program.

However, an amendment removed that restriction opening the program to some 70,000 commercial pilots. A spokeswoman for the Allied Pilots Association late Wednesday welcomed that development. But congressional sources say chances are not good for approval of similar legislation in the Senate because of strong opposition there from a powerful committee chairman.