Pilots' Union Offers Mineta Help Arming Pilots

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The union that represents the nearly 12,000 pilots of American Airlines wants Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to take, "a more definitive approach concerning the arming of pilots."

The Allied Pilots Association (APA) wrote Mineta Monday, praising the Airport Security Federalization Act (ASFA) of 2001, signed into law that same day by President Bush.

Section 128 of that legislation authorizes a pilot of a passenger aircraft "to carry a firearm into the cockpit if:

- the Under Secretary (of the Department of Transportation) for Security approves;
- the air carrier approves;
- the firearm is approved by the Under Secretary; and
- the pilot has received proper training for the use of the firearm, as determined by the Under Secretary."

Capt. John Darrah, president of APA, says the government will have to do more than just make it possible for airlines to decide whether or not their pilots can be armed.

"APA supports a multi-layered defensive approach. Non-lethal alternatives may well be ideal as an extra layer of protection for cabin crews," wrote Captain Darrah. "But lethal weapons are an essential component of a last line of defense."

First Officer Al Aitken represents 600 Washington-area-based pilots on the APA Board of Directors, and serves as deputy chairman of the APA's Committee for Armed Defense of the Cockpit (CADC). He says whether or not airlines go along with the idea of arming pilots will depend mainly on one issue: potential liability.

"We think that the airlines are going to be reluctant to have that policy unless they know that they're not going to be held accountable if their pilots have to use their weapons in flight," Aitken said.

But the new law may already address that issue. Section 144 of the ASFA states that, "An individual shall not be liable for damages in any action brought in a Federal or State court arising out of the acts of the individual in attempting to thwart an act of criminal violence or piracy on an aircraft..."

Aitken says APA lawyers are reviewing Section 144 to determine if the liability protection would extend to an airline if the person acting to prevent the criminal act was an airline employee. What that examination determines will decide APA's future course of action.

"If it turns out that that does not indemnify the air carriers, then we're going to continue to seek further legislation that will, in fact, give that to us," he added. "And we believe we do have some support in Congress."

APA is also looking at the possibility of having pilots deputized as federal law enforcement officers to transfer any potential liability from the airlines to the federal government.

That option has been promoted by some Air Line Pilot's Association (ALPA) members, who have adopted a resolution threatening a "Suspension of Air Service" if they are not allowed to carry guns after completing federal background checks and training programs.

Aitken says examining all available options is a top priority for him and his fellow committee members.

"We want to have this committee from APA help (Secretary Mineta) implement this program in such a way that it's the very best program for all of us involved," he said.

The CADC has received no response from the Transportation Department regarding its offer, but Aitken says that's understandable given the rush of this week's holidays. He says he and other committee members will be in touch with Mineta's office next week to try to arrange a meeting with the secretary.

Aitken says all pilots want is a realistic last resort to defend against the threat of terrorists hijacking their planes.

"We want to remain behind the improved, impervious, locked cockpit door," he said. "The only time we would use a weapon is if somebody, somehow or other figures out a way to blow that thing open and tries to come in to the cockpit."

It's now up to Mineta, the airlines, and possibly Congress, he says, to give pilots the ability to protect themselves and their passengers.