WASHINGTON -- The nation's 75,000 airline pilots could avoid being screened for weapons before they board airplanes if a test starting shortly succeeds.
Critics, including flight attendants, fear that an armed terrorist posing as a pilot could get on an airplane if pilots don't have to walk through metal detectors and have their bags scanned by X-ray machines.
At three test airports, pilots will skip passenger screening and go through separate checkpoints where a screener will check only their airline ID. The test, run by the Transportation Security Administration, will begin in early summer and could be copied around the country at a later date, TSA assistant administrator John Sammon said.
Pilots unions have been lobbying to skip airport screening, which they call unnecessary and "demoralizing." The Air Line Pilots Association notes that pilots face extensive background tests, and that pilots wanting to do harm with an airplane would hardly need a weapon because they control airplanes.
Airport screening "has just worn on them," said Pete Janhunen, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union. "You trust them to fly a multimillion-dollar airplane, and yet a TSA inspector with little training, little experience has the ability to strip-search them for gels."
Congress passed a broad anti-terror law last summer requiring the TSA to give pilots and flight attendants "expedited access through screening checkpoints."
The Association of Flight Attendants says it doesn't mind checkpoint screening -- and that it must be done for everyone. "It shouldn't be demoralizing for anyone to spend the extra few minutes (getting screened)," union spokeswoman Corey Caldwell said.
Sammon of the TSA said the upcoming test will guard against terrorists using a stolen or forged pilot ID, and could speed checkpoints for passengers.
In the three test airports, which have not been chosen, pilots would walk through "exit lanes" where passengers arriving on flights leave a concourse into an unsecured terminal. A TSA screener would check pilots' airline-issued photo ID cards against a pilot database with photos. The screener would compare the ID photo to the database photo to verify a pilot's identity.
Aviation-security consultant Rich Roth said, "I don't see anything wrong with" the program.
The TSA uses separate checkpoints for the 10,000 or so pilots who are approved to carry handguns, for law enforcement officers flying on business and public officials with an armed security detail. Those people register at a checkpoint and have their IDs checked.
Other pilots can skip checkpoints if they have airport IDs that allow them to enter secure areas through employee entrances. Pilots and flight attendants who are screened can go to the front of a checkpoint line.
Sammon said exempting flight attendants from screening could be more difficult because there is no centralized database of their identities.