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U.S. Pilots Seeking to Carry Firearms With Marshals on Flights Declining

By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Greg Schneider

A group of American Airlines pilots said Monday that a declining number of federal air marshals are aboard flights leaving Reagan Washington National Airport, arguing that in-flight security remains so uncertain that pilots should be able to carry guns in the cockpit.

Transportation officials refused to discuss the super-secret air marshal program. But the fact that the pilots raised the issue shows how frustrated they have become in the quest to make America’s skies safe from terrorism.

Despite other steps taken to protect aircraft -- from strengthening cockpit doors to training air crews to resist hijackers -- many pilots say they will continue to feel unsafe until they are allowed to carry guns.

Congress gave the new Transportation Security Administration authority to grant such permission, but Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Monday that he is opposed to it.

“I don’t feel that we should have lethal weapons in the cockpit,” Mineta said during a news conference announcing the award of a contract to begin recruiting about 30,000 workers to serve as federal baggage screeners.

Other administration officials are also said to be opposed to allowing lethal firearms in cockpits, although the security agency still is considering the issue. Even if the number of air marshals on flights into and out of National may be declining, nationwide the number of air marshals, who are armed and travel undercover, has expanded “dramatically” since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, noted one source.

There were fewer than 50 air marshals in service before the attacks, several sources said. Today, according to sources, there are nearly 1,000.

But that’s only a fraction of the number that would be required to put an air marshal on each of the 35,000 flights a day in the U.S.

That could cost nearly $10 billion and would require a work force the size of the U.S. Marine Corps, said Capt. Phillip Beall, chairman of the Allied Pilots Association’s defense of the cockpit committee.

Already, Beall said, the program is having difficulty retaining the marshals it has hired since Sept. 11, according to his sources with the FBI and FAA who are running the program. “It’s an incredibly boring job, waiting for something to happen,” Beall said.

The Transportation Security Administration will begin a much larger effort to recruit, train and hire more air marshals in the next few months. Human resources firm FPMI Communications Inc., of Huntsville, Ala., a division of Star Mountain Inc., has received a $3.5 million contract with TSA through July to review resumes, interview candidates, set pay and make offers to air marshal applicants.