WASHINGTON (AP) - While the pace of training and deployment of armed pilots on commercial flights has picked up, supporters of the program say the Bush administration still 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 U.S. 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 hasn't signed up because of the way the program is run. He said many others won't join for the same reason.
Mackett contends 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 more quickly get pilots into the program.
"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.
Hatfield said he couldn't disclose which procedures had been adjusted because of the program's sensitive security nature.
The exact number of armed pilots is classified. No pilot has fired a weapon, either intentionally or accidentally, while on duty, according to TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley.
The TSA initially opposed the program, worrying that introducing a weapon to a commercial flight was dangerous and that other security enhancements since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made it unnecessary. The agency reluctantly endorsed the idea when it was clear Congress was behind it.
The Bush administration now 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, Amy von Walter.
Pilots must volunteer, take a psychological test and complete a weeklong firearms training program run by the government to keep a gun in the cockpit. Mackett said it can take from two months to a year to get a gun from the time an online application is submitted. Some pilots never even hear back from the TSA, he said.
Mackett said the psychological testing and background checks are unnecessary because pilots already have been carefully vetted by their airlines to be able to fly commercial jets.
Hatfield countered that the requirements are needed because of the unique stresses of defending a plane from terrorists while trying to fly it.
"All of the testing, including the psych portion, is designed to ensure we have the most capable candidates for this extremely demanding job," he said.
"Unlike other law enforcement jobs, it's not just about making a life-or-death decision and waiting for backup. It's about making that decision and then turning around and flying the plane again."
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.
Coalition president Jon Safle said that forcing pilots to give up their guns is "just not a smart thing to do" and that it exposes the weapons to loss or theft.
Last year, Congress failed to pass a bill that would speed the application and training process, allow pilots to carry guns in holsters and let those among them with military or law enforcement backgrounds carry guns immediately.
Mackett said the pilots will try again this year.