Thousands of Pilots Won't Fly Armed, Blame TSA

By Jeff Johnson Senior Staff Writer
January 15, 2004

link to CNS News article

( - The federal agency charged with providing security for U.S. airlines, and the airlines themselves are intentionally sabotaging the congressionally-mandated program to train and certify pilots who volunteer to carry guns in the cockpit, according to supporters of the program who claim tens of thousands of pilots have opted out s a result.

Pilots with knowledge of the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO), or "armed pilots" program tell that the manner in which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires FFDOs to carry their weapons not only discourages participation, but also renders them defenseless against potential terrorist attacks when they are most vulnerable. The pilots also complain that TSA has issued a "thinly veiled threat" to disclose personal information discovered during background investigations and subjective results of psychological evaluations in an attempt to further discourage pilots from volunteering for the program.

The U.S. House passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act by a vote of 310 to 113 in July of 2002. The proposal became law Nov. 22, 2002, as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002

An FFDO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told in an exclusive interview that the TSA is "not pursuing [the armed pilots program] with any sense of urgency."

"The TSA has designed the program to deter participation and they're being successful," the FFDO said. "The program should be a large program so that it can be an effective deterrent and, because it is not as large as it should be, it is not the deterrent that it should be."

Capt. Dave Mackett, a commercial airline pilot and vice president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA), said actual enrollment in the program speaks volumes about TSA's performance, or lack thereof. He said nearly 40,000 certified pilots initially signed up with his organization, indicating their interest in serving as Federal Flight Deck Officers. But now, Mackett says, there are "only a few thousand volunteers" registered with TSA.

"As a result of the program's attributes -- the way the TSA designed the program -- roughly 88 to 90 percent of the original pilots who expressed an interest changed their minds," Mackett explained.

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for TSA, initially offered to comment on the allegations reported in the investigation of the FFDO program, with some restrictions.

"I'm not going to respond to those types of statements," Rhatigan said when asked about specific allegations that are reported in the article. "I can respond to your specific questions about the program, how it's operated, what it's doing. But, as far as going back and forth like that, I'm not going to be able to participate"

Rhatigan was asked how many of the 40,000 pilots, who had originally registered with APSA, had formally volunteered for the FFDO program, but declined to answer.

Method of carrying weapon blamed for most pilots' decision to withdraw

One FFDO, who agreed to comment on the "carry protocol" for armed pilots' handguns only if did not disclose the person's identity, said the regulation is "designed to deter participation."

"A lot of my coworkers have watched what I go through and they say, 'You know what? I'm not signing up,'" the FFDO explained.

The FFDO also believes such comments are the result TSA desires. "I've had so many pilots tell me, 'I'm not signing up for this. I'm not putting myself through this kind of agony to go through what you go through.'

"That is the thing that's really deterring participation," the FFDO added.

As previously reported, the TSA requires FFDOs to be essentially disarmed anytime they are outside the cockpit of their aircraft.

"The jurisdiction of use of the weapon is in the cockpit and the cockpit only. They are called 'Federal Flight Deck Officers,'" explained Heather Rosenker, a spokeswoman for TSA in a February 2003 interview. "If somebody tries to intervene [sic] into the cockpit of that aircraft, [FFDOs] have the right to use their weapon."

Asked if there were no other circumstances under which a pilot would be justified in using the weapon, Rosenker replied, "That's correct."

Unless the pilot is behind the locked cockpit door, TSA requires that the weapon be holstered, locked inside a hard-sided gun case and stored inside "a bag that is non-descript."

The policy leaves pilots defenseless during the time when law enforcement and security experts agree that the cockpit is most vulnerable.

"The weapon needs to be re-secured in the locked box if the cockpit door is open," Rosenker explained, acknowledging that the regulation would include times during flights when one of the pilots leaves the cockpit to use the restroom or get food.

Dean Roberts, a former federal law enforcement officer and pilot, now flies for a commercial passenger airline. He told that even some pilots with federal law enforcement experience would not apply for the FFDO program because of the lock box requirement.

"I know of, there are five in my crew base alone that are all graduates of FLETC (the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) or graduates of the FBI Academy who have no intention of putting in paperwork to go to this," Roberts said.

"When I carried a gun as a federal law enforcement officer on an airplane, it was a hassle carrying a gun [on board]," Roberts explained. "The FFDO program has got about 20 more unnecessary steps in the process that make it more hassle than it is worth."

TSA's policy allegedly causing guns to be lost, could facilitate robberies

One pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the risk of a handgun carried inside a lock box, inside another piece of luggage, being stolen from an FFDO or taken by force should be obvious.

"Criminals know that [some] pilots carry guns in lock boxes and those guns are not available to the pilots," said the aviator who also has a background in federal law enforcement. "TSA has set up every FFDO to be the victim of an armed robbery to get their gun."

Commercial airline captains and first officers, the pilot noted, are required to travel between terminals and distant employee parking lots at all hours of the day and night, often with little or no security. Because an FFDO's handgun is sealed inside the lock box, which is carried inside another piece of luggage, the source said it would be impossible for the "armed" pilot to use it to defend against one or more attackers.

The FFDO policies and procedures also forbid pilots from carrying their lock boxes inside the passenger compartment of a plane unless they are the assigned captain or first officer for that particular flight. As a result, pilots who are "deadheading," or flying as passengers to or from an assignment, must place their firearm lock boxes into the cargo hold of the aircraft.

Roberts, who previously worked as a special agent and pilot for both the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is a graduate of both the FBI Academy and FLETC. He said that while baggage handlers are not supposed to touch the lock boxes belonging to deadheading FFDOs, the lock boxes frequently get mixed with the luggage of other passengers.

"[FFDOs] go down to pick up the gun from a trip and it's already whisked off to baggage claim," Roberts explained. "It happens several times a day, more than once.

"Pilots go down to get the gun and the baggage handlers have already been in the belly [and] unloaded it and the gun is on its way to baggage claim," Roberts elaborated. "The FFDOs then have to get back up into the airplane, go down out of the terminal, down to baggage claim and hopefully find their gun on the carousel."

TSA's Rhatigan was asked how many times deadheading FFDOs had reported such incidents to TSA.

"I don't have access to that information to share with you at this time and I'm going to conclude this interview," Rhatigan responded. "I'm going to refer this up to Mark Hatfield the director of communications here and see if he has somebody he'd like to have you talk to."

Despite having refused such an offer during the initial interview, Rhatigan later called back to request that submit a list of questions for TSA to consider. That list was submitted Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning, TSA was reminded of and acknowledged the reporter's Wednesday afternoon deadline. More than 24-hours after initially being contacted, however, TSA had provided no further response.

An FFDO who agreed to talk to confirmed Roberts' claim on background but did not wish to be quoted on the issue, fearing reprisals for violating TSA's prohibition on FFDOs disclosing any flaws with the program to anyone other than TSA management.

Despite Roberts' extensive firearms training background and federal law enforcement experience, he was expelled from FFDO training on the last day of classes. He believes challenging the lock box and other TSA policies that are contrary to standard law enforcement procedures led to his dismissal.

"If you got pushy and demanded some answers and called them on their double-speak," Roberts speculated, "[TSA managers] said, 'Well, you've got to go. You're a troublemaker.'"

TSA accused of discouraging participation before program's official launch

APSA says TSA tried to discourage pilots from volunteering for the FFDO program even before the program officially began ...

Read Part Two - Part Three

Link to the Airline Pilots Security Alliance