WASHINGTON -- The pace of the training and the deployment of armed pilots on commercial flights has picked up, but supporters of the program say the Bush administration is making it unnecessarily difficult for crews to take guns into the cockpit.
Pilots who monitor the program estimate that between 4,000 and 4,500 have been trained and deputized to carry guns since the Federal Flight Deck Officer program began in April 2003. That total is about three times as many as a year ago, yet a fraction of the 95,000 pilots who fly for US airlines.
David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, a group formed to lobby for guns in the cockpit, said tens of thousands of his colleagues are interested in the program. ''We have an armed pilots program that's arming very few pilots," said Mackett, who said he hasn't signed up because of the way the program is run. He said many others won't join for the same reason.
Mackett asserts that the Transportation Security Administration isn't moving to get substantially more pilots trained to carry guns because it has never really wanted the program.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield disputed that, saying agency chief David Stone fully backs the effort and that procedures have been changed to get pilots into the program more quickly.
''I've got a pipeline with a couple of thousand applicants, and we're running two full classes a week," Hatfield said. The TSA can train about 50 pilots per class.
The TSA initially opposed the program, expressing concern that introducing a weapon to a commercial flight was dangerous and that security enhancements since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, made arming pilots unnecessary. The agency reluctantly endorsed the idea when it was evident that Congress was behind it.
The Bush administration wants to spend $7 million more on arming pilots in 2006 than the $25.3 million this year. The increase will mostly go toward retraining pilots who already carry firearms, according to a TSA spokeswoman.
Another pilots' group, the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, gave the TSA a ''D" for the guns-in-the-cockpit program as part of its annual ''Aviation Security Report Card."
Both pilot groups object to the requirement that pilots carry their government-issue semiautomatic guns in a lockbox when they're not in the cockpit and to store it in the cargo hold when they're traveling but not flying a plane.