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Can pilots carry guns on commercial flights? Incident on Delta plane raises questions

Feds: Delta co-pilot threatened to shoot captain
Former Delta co-pilot indicted for threatening to shoot captain 02:22

A former Delta co-pilot is facing federal charges for allegedly threatening to shoot a flight captain who, during a trip last year, tried to divert their plane because a passenger may have been experiencing a medical emergency in the air, court documents and officials confirmed. 

The former pilot, identified as Jonathan J. Dunn, was indicted by a Utah grand jury on Oct. 18 for allegedly using a dangerous weapon to assault and intimidate an aircraft crew member and interfering with the crew's ability to perform its duties.

New details that came to light this week have raised questions about whether commercial airline pilots are allowed to carry loaded guns aboard a flight, even while regular passengers are not.

Can pilots carry guns?

Pilots can carry guns in some instances. Dunn was part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, which "authorizes flight crew members to use firearms to defend against an act of criminal violence and air piracy while attempting to gain control of an aircraft," according to the Transportation Security Administration. 

Eligible candidates for the volunteer officer program include pilots, flight engineers and flight navigators, who have a current airman certificate from the FAA and a current class one or class two medical certificate, as well as U.S. citizenship. 

Candidates interested in becoming flight deck officers need to apply for it, starting with submitting an hour-long online questionnaire form that collects personal information from applicants about things like their employment history and asks whether they have previously worked in law enforcement, served in the military, or been disciplined professionally or criminally in the past. 

The TSA questionnaire for potential federal flight deck officers also requires that all applicants check a series of boxes with statements explaining the job. One of those statements reads:

"As an FFDO you are considered a federal law enforcement officer only for the limited purposes of carrying firearms and using force, including deadly force to defend the flight deck of an aircraft from air piracy or criminal violence. FFDOs are not granted or authorized to exercise other law enforcement powers such as to make arrests, to seek or execute search warrants, to seize evidence, or to otherwise act as a federal law enforcement officer outside the jurisdiction of aircraft flight deck. Do you understand and will you fully comply with this very limited jurisdiction and authority?"

Those accepted into the program are required to undergo a training program and must pass periodic retraining and requalification.

"Individuals in the FFDO program must pass thorough vetting, pass a bi-annual firearms requalification, and attend training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center," a TSA spokesperson told CBS News in an email Wednesday.

"FFDOs are only authorized to carry their firearm while acting in their official capacity as a FFDO," they noted. 

The spokesperson did not immediately respond when asked to share more information about what the vetting, training and requalification processes entail.

According to a Justice Department description of the program, "The FFDO training program is rigorous and includes academic lessons, close quarters simulation training, and firearms training," 

For passengers and crew who do not have authorization, boarding or attempting to board an aircraft with a "concealed deadly or dangerous weapon" that could be accessible in-flight to whomever possesses it, is a federal crime, which can result in a misdemeanor or felony charge, depending on how it's used. 

But those laws and regulations do not "apply to any officer or employee of the Federal government who is authorized or required in his/her official capacity to carry arms," according to the Justice Department's criminal resource manual.

What happened on the Delta flight?

The incident involving Dunn took place during a Delta Air Lines flight on Aug. 22, 2022, the Department of Transportation's inspector general's office said in a news release Tuesday.

Dunn, the co-pilot, had "a disagreement" with the captain during the flight over whether to potentially change course "due to a passenger medical event," and then Dunn allegedly "told the captain they would be shot multiple times if the captain diverted the flight," the inspector general's statement said.

The release did not provide details about the flight's departure location or its destination, but a grand jury indicted Dunn in Utah. 

A spokesperson for Delta told CBS News that Dunn was employed by the airline and working as a first officer — a commercial pilot who helps navigate and operate flights from inside the cockpit, essentially acting as the captain's second-in-command and assisting throughout the flight. 

Delta declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, but confirmed that the officer is "no longer employed at Delta."

The TSA told CBS News it was also aware of the incident, adding, "Dunn was removed from the FFDO program." 

"Following an incident last year involving a Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO), TSA immediately removed Dunn from the FFDO program upon learning of his actions, and took away his equipment," a TSA spokesperson said Wednesday. 

The agency said broadly in an earlier statement that it "holds all of its employees to the highest professional and ethical standards and has a zero tolerance for misconduct by its workforce" and "takes prompt and appropriate action with any employee who does not follow our procedures," adding that it could not comment further due to a "pending investigation" into the incident. 

Felicia Martinez, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office in Utah, shared a similar statement, saying, "At this stage in the case, we don't have a lot of information to share without jeopardizing the integrity of the case." 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Aviation Administration are involved in the investigation as well. Both agencies have declined to comment. 

What's next for Dunn?

Dunn is scheduled for arraignment on Nov. 16. 

The indictment by a Utah grand jury alleges he "did assault and intimidate a crew member of an aircraft, thereby interfering with the performance of the duties of the crew member and lessening the ability of the crew member to perform those duties, and did use a dangerous weapon in assaulting and intimidating the crew member." 

Charging documents related to the case are sealed.

—Kris Van Cleave and Katie Krupnik contributed reporting.

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