Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Pilots from America's major airlines expressed their disapproval Wednesday of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's plan to use as many as 5,000 immigration enforcement agents as part-time Federal Air Marshals.
"We are disappointed that, even as Mr. Ridge recognizes the critical need for more armed officers on our airplanes, he intends to meet it by adding 5000 'part-time' immigration agents as air marshals, pulling them from other critical duties," said Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.
As CNSNews.com reported Tuesday, jurisdiction over Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) will be moved from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"This realignment offers a sweeping gain of additional armed law enforcement officials who will be able to provide a surge capacity during increased threat periods or in the event of a terrorist attack," Ridge said in an address at the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday.
"Importantly, [with] this single move we will be able to deploy more than 5,000 additional armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies when needed," Ridge added.
Lambert and the pilots who are APSA members believe there is a faster and more economical way to provide an armed deterrent to hijackers in thousands of U.S. airliners.
"While we welcome the FAM program, it would be much more cost-effective to immediately accelerate and streamline the training of the thousands of volunteer professional airline pilots as federal [flight deck] officers, as they would cover many more flights full-time for free," Lambert explained.
To date, approximately 200 to 250 airline pilots have been trained to participate in the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, more commonly referred to simply as "armed pilots."
APSA complained in a series of nationwide press conferences Aug. 27 that TSA was not implementing the armed pilots program quickly enough.
"There are, currently, just not enough armed pilots to create an adequate deterrent against this terrorism threat," Lambert warned during a media event held at Ronald Reagan-Washington National Airport.
APSA estimates that as many as 120,000 pilots are legally qualified for the program and that at least 40,000 want to participate. TSA disagrees, claiming the agency is training all of the qualified pilots who have expressed interest in the program.
"Unlike some quotes that have been put out recently, we know the true number of pilots who have raised their hand and started the application process, and we know that that number is significantly less than what's been stated by the APSA and some others," said John Moran, TSA's deputy assistant administrator for law enforcement and security training.
Lambert argues that TSA should drop psychological and background check requirements for armed pilots that are more extensive than those conducted for air marshals.
If that happened, Lambert believes pilots, who already undergo FAA background checks and routine psychological exams every six months, would flock to the program. Instead, he said, the agency is "robbing Peter to pay Paul," diverting border protection assets in order to make the flying public "feel" safe.
"What they are doing here is training customs agents to double as air marshals on an as needed basis, flying them around on airplanes," Lambert concluded, "while they send competent airline pilots who want to defend their passengers, crew and aircraft to psychiatrists."
CNSNews.com Senior Staff Writer Lawrence Morahan contributed to this report.
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