WASHINGTON—The Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to allow airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, a controversial move designed to strengthen the aviation security system put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
With the House having passed similar legislation, the prospect that pilots eventually will be armed appears significantly improved, despite concerns by the Bush administration over cost, legal liability and other issues.
The Senate measure still must be reconciled with the House bill. Bush has threatened to veto the larger Senate homeland security bill drafted by the Democrats over other concerns, but it was uncertain what the president's position would be on the specific issue of arming pilots.
Under the amendment approved by the Senate, pilots would have to undergo training to be permitted to carry guns aboard planes. Self-defense training also would be offered to flight attendants. The administration estimates that as many as 85,000 pilots could be eligible for training, though presumably fewer would actually volunteer.
Just months ago, the proposal to arm pilots faced long odds. But pilots waged an intense lobbying campaign, portraying the air transportation system as still vulnerable to attack and calling guns in the cockpit "the last line of defense" against would-be hijackers.
Congress initially left the decision on arming pilots to the Transportation Security Administration. In May, administration officials came out against arming pilots, citing post-Sept. 11 security measures, such as reinforcing cockpit doors and expanding the ranks of armed federal air marshals.
The Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, expressed concerns about arming pilots, saying there are too many unanswered questions, such as the results of a misfired gun on pressurized aircraft.
"While we are spending literally billions of dollars to keep dangerous weapons off of aircraft, the idea of intentionally introducing thousands of deadly weapons into the system appears to be dangerously counterproductive," 21 airline CEOs said in a letter to Congress.
But lawmakers, among the most frequent fliers, drew on their own flying experiences to cite security shortcomings.
Gun foe backs measure
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a gun-control advocate whose support of the legislation helped give it momentum, said that although the number of air marshals is classified, there are not enough to put on every flight.
"If I could stand before you and assure you that I believe the skies are safe, I wouldn't be here supporting this bill," Boxer told her colleagues.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee, said arming pilots would be unnecessary once permanent reinforcement for cockpit doors is in place by April 2003.
"What you want to do is get a secure door to that cockpit," he said. "That's the last line of defense, not a gun."
In the end, Hollings voted for the bill after he won approval of an amendment that would require pilots to lock the cockpit door.
Training airline pilots to properly use firearms against hijackers would cost more than $1 billion, money the new Transportation Security Administration does not have, the Bush administration said in a letter to Congress on Thursday.
TSA Director James Loy said a program to train pilots would cost $900 million to set up and $250 million a year to run.
"TSA's current budget does not allow for further work in this area, which raises the question of who will bear the cost," Loy said.
Technical problems listed
His letter raised a host of other technical obstacles, from the need to install special holsters for the guns in cockpits, to potential difficulties with foreign countries that have strong gun-control laws, to the need for a large support staff for the pilot volunteers.
The Senate bill would shield airlines and pilots from liability for any damages from the use of guns in response to a threat. It also would require cameras to be installed in planes so that pilots could monitor the passenger cabin.
Voting against the measure were Sens. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.); James Jeffords (I-Vt.); Arlen Specter (R-Pa.); Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); Jack Reed (D-R.I.); and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). Not voting were Sens. Daniel Akaka (D- Hawaii); Joseph Biden (D-Del.); Jim Bunning (R-Ky.); John Ensign (R-Nev.); Tom Harkin (D- Iowa); Jesse Helms (R- N.C.); and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).
Richard Simon and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar are staff writers for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune newspaper.