Pilots disagree, saying the Transportation Security Administration, is discouraging them from signing up by requiring background and psychological checks, ordering pilots to carry guns in lockboxes and holding the training at a single remote site.
"We estimate 40,000 pilots would volunteer if it were properly managed by the TSA," said Capt. Bob Lambert, president of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance, who was speaking at a Tuesday news conference. Pilots are trying to pressure the Bush administration to move ahead quickly with the training program.
John Moran, who heads the government's training program, said the TSA's training is meeting the demand of pilots who want to carry a weapon.
"The great majority of those who have volunteered will be trained within a year," Moran said at a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Full classes of 48 each are booked through the end of September, he said, and the agency plans to double its classes in January.
Another member of the pilots security group, Capt. Phillip Beall, says 10,000 of his fellow airline pilots should have been given guns by now and trained to use them while in the cockpit. Instead, he said, fewer than 200 have weapons because the agency in charge of arming pilots is dragging its feet.
The pilots held news conferences Tuesday at several airports around the country to urge the Transportation Security Administration to speed up the program.
Brian Turmail, a TSA spokesman, rejects the claim that the agency isn't moving fast enough. He said the TSA quickly created a training program and application process for pilots, and now that those elements are established, the pace of training will pick up.
Full classes are booked through the end of September, he said. The number of pilots in each class is kept secret for security reasons.
Pilots lobbied Congress hard last year, arguing that guns would allow them to supplement air marshals, who cover only a small percentage of the 35,000 daily flights in the United States. The TSA, seeking to address a budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion, froze air marshal hiring in May.
The agency had opposed arming pilots, believing tighter airport security, bulletproof cockpit doors and more vigilant passengers made it unnecessary. Critics also said adding guns to airplanes was inherently dangerous.
But after it became obvious that Congress would support the program, TSA chief James Loy reluctantly went along.
Pilots who volunteer for the program take a week of classes, weapons instruction and hand-to-hand combat drills at a federal law enforcement training center. Background checks and psychological testing also are conducted.
Capt. Lambert said at the current rate of 50 pilots a week it will take 15 years to arm the estimated 40,000 pilots who want to carry guns.
The first 44 pilots to complete the program were designated "flight deck officers" on April 19 and began flying with weapons. The second class finished in July, and now classes are conducted weekly.
An upcoming move to a training center in Artesia, N.M., from Glynco, Ga., will allow the agency to train more pilots, Turmail said. Many pilots don't like the new location because it's difficult to get to.
Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., is backing the pilots' campaign.
"The government is throwing roadblocks in the way of fulfilling what was a very clear congressional mandate," Barr said. "If the White House would simply make a clear statement that this must be done, it dramatically improves the chances of it happening."
By Leslie Miller