Union Tribune

March 5, 2003

Plan would allow arming of cargo pilots


WASHINGTON A bipartisan group of lawmakers began a push yesterday to allow pilots of cargo aircraft to be armed.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who are co-sponsoring the legislation, said cargo planes are vulnerable to hijacking by terrorists and the pilots should have the same right to carry handguns in the cockpit that passenger airline pilots were granted recently.

"In many cases, cargo planes have far less security than passenger planes," Boxer said. "It makes them tempting targets for terrorists."

"A cargo jet can just as easily be turned into a weapon of mass destruction as a commercial jet," Bunning said.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation last year to allow passenger and cargo airline pilots to voluntarily arm themselves as a last line of defense against would-be hijackers. But cargo pilots were quietly dropped from the provision during negotiations between the House and Senate over a larger homeland security law.

FedEx and other cargo carriers oppose the arming of pilots.

"Lethal weapons and nonlethal weapons like stun guns we think would pose a substantial safety threat to crew members as well as the structural integrity of the aircraft," said Pam Roberson, a spokeswoman for FedEx. "We believe that a systematic approach including strengthening cockpit doors represents a better approach to airline safety."

Boxer and other supporters of arming the pilots argued that cargo aircraft, some of which lack cockpit doors, are easy targets for stowaways or terrorists posing as airport workers. They also say that the security surrounding cargo facilities at airports is generally weak and note that cargo planes sometimes carry passengers.

Advocates of the plan noted that in December a woman scaled an 8-foot fence at an airport in Fargo, N.D., and tried to board a United Parcel Service cargo plane. She was prevented from reaching the jet.

Several cargo pilots spoke in favor of the legislation at a news conference yesterday.

By not giving cargo pilots the same right to carry firearms as passenger pilots, "we have basically created a blueprint for terrorists to use cargo aircraft," said Marcus Flagg, a pilot for United Parcel Service who said his parents were aboard the plane that terrorists slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

The legislation would apply to about 11,000 cargo pilots, lawmakers said.

The Transportation Security Administration is implementing a trial program for passenger airline pilots who want to carry guns in the cockpit. The program will include background checks, psychological tests and firearms training.

The first 48 pilots trained under the program are expected to take to the skies this spring.