Obama set to clash with House GOP over program for training armed airline pilots

President Obama and House Republicans are set to clash over the administration’s proposal to slash money for training pilots on how to handle firearms in the cockpit.

Obama’s budget proposed a 52-percent cut in the federal flight deck officer program, which certifies pilots to carry handguns while flying commercial planes.

Congress authorized the program after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and its backers argue it is a cost-effective way to defend against future hijackings.

The administration, however, wants to focus resources on “risk-based operational initiatives”, such as the Federal Air Marshall Service, which can be deployed to defend against specific threats.

Freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), a former pilot for Northwest Airlines, and a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is ready to battle Obama over the cuts.

Cravaack sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee Thursday calling on Congress to double funding for the armed pilots training program to $50.5 million.

“The Federal Flight Desk Officer program serves as the last line of defense in the event of a terrorist attack on the cockpit of an airplane,” Cravaack wrote. “By training and arming pilots, qualified participants are able to defend the cockpit from attack in the event that the reinforced cockpit door fails.

“This program has consistently proven one of the most cost effective means of securing air transportation against terrorist attacks,” he wrote.

Cravaack has called for cuts to the Transportation Security Administration’s screening accounts to pay for expanding the armed pilots program.

Pilots who support the program say Obama’s proposed cuts would undermine it severely.

They fear reduced federal funding will force re-certification centers around the country to shut down, making it inconvenient for pilots to re-qualify. 

To gain certification to carry a gun onboard, pilots must take a six-day training program in Artesia, New Mexico. They must attend a half-day requalification session at various locations around the country to maintain it.

“If they reduce dramatically the number of requalification sites with a 50-percent budget cut, that’s a problem,” said Tracy Price, a commercial airline pilot. “Pilots can now drive to requalification locations but if they have to take a day off and fly and spend a night in a hotel, it’s an inconvenience.”

Price said pilots have to pay for travel, food and lodging out of their own pockets when they attend the training sessions.

“There’s a limit to what they’re willing to do and the amount of money they’re willing to spend,” he said.

Price argues the pilots program is a better use of taxpayers’ dollars than air marshals.  

The cost of training pilots breaks down to $15 dollars per flight while the cost of deploying air marshals costs as much as $3,300 per flight.

Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at The Heritage Foundation, has helped mobilize opposition to the president’s budget proposal. 

“It would be devastating,” Darling said of the proposed budget cut. “It shows the Obama administration’s intent to kill the armed pilot program. The fact that they’ve cut the budget in half is evidence they want to end this program in the next few years and want to start winding it down now.”

An administration official cited a budget statement justifying the decision.

“Funds will be redirected from this voluntary program to other high-priority, risk-based operational initiatives. Since 2001, many enhancements to aviation security have been made, such as 100-percent screening of all passengers and their carry-on items, the installation of reinforced and locking cockpit doors on aircraft that operate in U.S. airspace, and increased passenger and flight crew awareness to address security risks,” the budget justification states.

The administration argues these changes have lowered the risk of cockpit invasion.

But pilots who support the program contend that layers of airport security are not foolproof, noting a box cutter — the type of weapon terrorists used during the 9/11 attacks — was discovered aboard a Southwest Airlines flight in Houston earlier this year.

“I was shocked at first because this is the most cost-efficient security measure to date. You’re going to cut something that’s cost efficient and that works in favor of something that’s bloated and doesn’t work?” said Marcus Flagg, a pilot for UPS and president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association, of his reaction to hearing about the administration’s proposal.  

“We offer five-times the coverage of air marshals,” he said.

Flagg believes armed pilots are an effective deterrent against hijacking and has doubts about the Transportation Security Administration’s screening systems.

His parents died on American Airlines flight number 77, which was commandeered by terrorists and crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.