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Pilots say TSA Disrupting Gun Training

By Fred Bayles

Two pilots groups and key members of Congress are blasting the Transportation Security Administration for moves they fear could delay arming pilots.

Last week, the TSA fired Willie Ellison, the head of the TSA academy, despite high praise by the pilots who received firearms training. This week, the TSA revealed plans to move the training from Georgia to New Mexico.

''It's one more bureaucratic disaster devised by those who want to make this more complex and expensive than it has to be,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., head of the House aviation subcommittee. ''I don't know what their ulterior motive is, but it is very frustrating.''

Congress authorized guns in cockpits last fall over the objections of the Bush administration and the airline industry. The law provides training for airline pilots in firearms, hand-to-hand combat and legal issues. Pilots are then deputized as federal officers and allowed to use deadly force in defense of their cockpits. The first class of 44 pilots graduated in April.

TSA officials told the 50 people who provide the training that the program would be moved from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., to a facility at Artesia, N.M., in a remote southeast section of the state.

Both centers, on former military bases, provide training in firearms and tactics to law enforcement personnel from 74 federal agencies. The Georgia facility has seen enrollment grow by 30% a year since 2001.

The TSA training staffers, many of whom moved to Georgia in the past year, were offered the chance to relocate to New Mexico.

TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said courses would resume in Georgia in July as scheduled. Then the training would move to New Mexico in the fall because of ''a surge of other training'' in Georgia. ''They are running out of space there,'' Johnson said. He said attempts will be made to find other jobs for the trainers, but many fear they will be laid off soon.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking Democrat on the aviation committee, complained that the changes came as a surprise to Congress. ''No attempt was made to rationalize the waste of money spent setting up the program in Georgia and then moving it to New Mexico,'' he said. ''It's just another attempt by the administration to disrupt the program at the behest of the airlines who have always opposed arming pilots.''

Johnson declined to comment on Ellison, citing privacy issues. Ellison also declined to comment.

Pilots worry about what the shake-up means for those awaiting training.

Bob Lambert, the head of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, an organization of pilots who have campaigned for the right to arm themselves against the threat of terrorist attacks, charged that the changes were a ''delay tactic'' by TSA officials opposed to arming pilots.

Lambert and other pilots also questioned the reasons given for firing Ellison, a firearms expert and former deputy assistant director with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They said the TSA removed Ellison for ''unacceptable performance and conduct,'' but that the specific reasons listed made no sense to them.

Ellison's bosses criticized him for holding a dinner for the pilots, providing them with baseball caps with the program's logo and asking them to evaluate the course -- all standard practices for training seminars, the pilots said. ''The reasons they fired him do not reflect what I observed in the program,'' Stephen Luckey, the chairman of the Air Line Pilot Association's national security committee, said. ''Someone was obviously unhappy with the program, but there's got to be more to it than this.''

Mica said his staff is investigating Ellison's firing. He also will push for changes in the program that will take it from TSA authority and use private training companies instead.

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