FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- They're already allowed to carry guns in the cockpit, but many pilots say that's not enough to keep aviation as safe as it should be.
They want police-like authority to holster a weapon all day long, whether they're at the controls, riding in back of a plane or eating lunch in a terminal.
"That would put us in line with standard law enforcement," said Marcus Flagg, president of the Federal Flight Deck Officer Association, which represents thousands of armed pilots.
He declined to say exactly how many pilots now carry guns, but he said the number is just behind the FBI, which has about 13,800 armed agents. Since being given permission to pack heat 10 years ago, no U.S. pilot has ever had to draw a weapon against a passenger.
Just the same, Flagg said the goal would be to protect the cockpit against a terrorist attack and provide stronger protection to U.S. commercial aviation. Armed pilots are on five times more flights than federal air marshals and ultimately are the "last line of defense."
Yet, as it stands, qualified pilots can't even go to the restroom holstering a firearm.
The Transportation Security Administration declines to say why it won't allow pilots to carry guns outside of the cockpit, other than to safeguard the traveling public. However, weapons experts say the policy likely is intended to eliminate the possibility of a troublemaker wresting a gun from pilot or of an accidental discharge while outside the cockpit.
Flagg said the chances of a pilot being stripped of his gun are slim.
"Yes, there is that possibility," he said, "but you're trained to protect against that."
During six days of intense training in Artesia, N.M., pilots not only learn how to handle weapons but also close-combat techniques. Further, passengers don't know whether a pilot is carrying a gun and that many ride in back out of uniform, he said.
In November, Flagg testified before Congress that the TSA's tight gun carriage rules are discouraging thousands of pilots from joining the Federal Flight Deck Officer program.
If pilots were given more leeway, the number of armed pilot applicants would double, said Flagg, 49, a pilot for a cargo airline and a Southlake, Texas, resident.
"The more Federal Flight Deck Officers that are out there, the more flights that are covered," he said. "They should not be restrained by the government from defending the cockpit in the event of a terrorist attack regardless of the side of the cockpit door they are seated."
The TSA said armed pilots are just one of multiple layers of security intended to protect 700 million travelers flying in and out of U.S. airports per year. Other measures include intelligence gathering by U.S. security agencies, screening passengers at checkpoints, federal air marshals and hardened cockpit doors.
Although the TSA won't disclose how many pilots carry guns, it disputes that the rules are discouraging applicants.
"Interest in the program and participation both remain strong," said Kimberly Thompson, spokeswoman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, which trains armed pilots. "There are no shortages of applicants."
Indeed, according to the Federal Flight Deck Officer Association, armed pilots now are the fourth largest U.S. law enforcement organization behind the FBI. Five years ago, there were about 8,000 armed pilots, or about 8 percent of the total number of U.S. pilots.
Passengers differ over allowing pilots to carry guns into the main cabin.
If stripped away, "it potentially puts a gun available to a bad guy," said frequent flier Dennis Grady, a hunter and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.
"Stun guns maybe, but not guns," said Russell Ginsberg, of Plantation, Fla. "If a bullet pierces the hull or skin of an aircraft it could be catastrophic."
But Michael Weatherly of Homestead, Fla., said qualified pilots should be allowed to take the guns with them.
"They are trained to use them, so let them," he said.
Flagg said that to provide real coverage, considering there are more than 20,000 airline flights a day, many more armed pilots are needed.
"This is the most cost-effective security measure," said Flagg, who saw both of his parents killed on Sept. 11, 2001, when their American Airlines jetliner crashed into the Pentagon.
The cost to put a federal air marshal on a flight is about $3,300, compared with about $15 for an armed pilot.
Pilots were first granted permission to take guns into cockpits in 2002, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
No pilot has used a gun to defend the cockpit since then, but in March 2008, a US Airways pilot's gun accidentally discharged while the plane was approaching to land in Charlotte. The Airbus 319 landed safely and no one was hurt.
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