Homeland Security officials are making changes to the armed-pilot program to encourage more of the nation's 90,000 captains and co-captains to participate.
Armed pilots will be issued badges to identify themselves, they will be allowed to carry their weapons on flights they are not piloting, and U.S. officials will seek to expand the program for overseas flights.
Conan Bruce, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, which now operates the armed-pilot program, said the changes are in response to a working group that has been meeting for months to address pilots' concerns.
"We recognize there is a need to carry a weapon on international flights, but we have to work it out with host countries; it's not up to us," Mr. Bruce said.
But David Mackett, director of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, doesn't expect a quick fix for a program that has attracted less than 10 percent of pilots.
"Maybe at some point, we will protect a handful of international flights, but the public should not feel secure that it will happen any time soon," Mr. Mackett said.
"Changes are coming at a glacial pace, and there seems to be no sense of urgency. The terrorist clock is ticking, and we need to be doing this now, not a year from now."
Federal air marshals, who number about 2,000, say they are concerned the agency will cut back their numbers as a cost-saving measure and instead turn to pilots to protect the aircraft.
Mr. Bruce said such a proposal is "absolutely not" under consideration.
Pilots are "an enhancement, not a replacement, they have totally separately and unique jobs," he said.
However, such a suggestion is coming from Capitol Hill, said one source familiar with the proposal.
"It is being advocated they use resources that are already in place, and that's the pilots, and use air marshals on targeted, high-risk and threat flights rather than scattered throughout the system like they are now," the source said.
"The air marshals are too elite of a group to be used like security guards," the source said.
One burden lifted is the rule that pilots commuting or "deadheading" on a flight no longer must pack their weapon separately in a lock box in the cargo hold.
Mr. Bruce declined to specify the rule, citing security reasons.