Airline pilots could carry guns in the cockpit to defend their planes against terrorists under a bill the House passed overwhelmingly Wednesday, despite the opposition of the White House.
The legislation, approved by a vote of 310-113, would allow guns for more than 70,000 pilots if they agreed to undergo training.
The measure was approved after lawmakers removed a cap on the number of pilots who could carry guns and a restriction to limit the program to two years. The final bill gave the option to all airline pilots on a voluntary basis and made the program permanent.
The bill an uncertain future in the Senate, where key leaders do not support arming pilots.
The guns-in-cockpits question is among a host of aviation security issues that arose after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In this case, House GOP leaders have been at odds with the administration, which has repeatedly argued that cockpit crews should focus on flying planes and let air marshals worry about security.
Though Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Transportation Committee agreed to arm only a fraction of the pilots, rank-and-file lawmakers voted to expand the program to any pilot who volunteers.
"If there is a credible threat that requires arming pilots, why would you restrict yourself?" said an amendment sponsor, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "Having that minuscule number of pilots trained and armed would not make any sense. If the pilots should be armed, there should be some significant number."
The measure also would require more self-defense training for flight attendants and give the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) 90 days to act on an airline's request to equip pilots and flight attendants with non-lethal weapons such as stun guns.
"Today, armed F-16s are prepared to shoot down any commercial jet that is hijacked by terrorists," said Transportation Committee chairman Don Young, R-Alaska. "It is imperative that under these new circumstances, we must allow trained and qualified pilots to serve as the last line of defense against such a potential disaster."
Opponents of the legislation have expressed concern that an errant bullet could kill a passenger or knock out a critical electrical system.
A flight attendants union also opposed arming pilots.
"Giving guns to pilots without specific cabin defense requirements for airlines could be deadly for flight attendants and passengers," Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said last month.
TSA head John Magaw, who announced the administration's position against guns in cockpits, has said that a pilot should give undivided attention to flying his plane, landing it as quickly as possible and conducting in-flight maneuvers to keep hijackers off balance.
Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, dismissed the administration's objections.
"Bureaucrats set the rules. We set the policy and the laws," said Mica, R-Fla.
Pilots' unions said their members needed the guns to prevent terrorists from breaking into cockpits and commandeering airplanes, as happened last September.
The Air Line Pilots Association has contributed $764,000 to federal candidates since Jan. 1, 2001. That's more in donations than was given to candidates by any individual airline, with 85 percent of the money going to Democrats, many of whom joined the majority House Republicans in supporting the legislation.
Before the vote, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, urged its members to call lawmakers and ask them to increase the number of pilots who could carry guns.
In strengthening airline security following the attacks, lawmakers gave the decision to arm pilots to the TSA. After Magaw announced the administration's decision against guns in the cockpits, lawmakers in both houses introduced legislation to overturn that action.
Magaw said the presence of air marshals on board many flights and the use of reinforced cockpit doors provide sufficient protection against terrorists.
Although passage in the House had been predicted, the legislation faced difficult obstacles on the other side of the Capitol.
Congressional aides have suggested that the measure may be offered as an amendment to a bill providing money for the Transportation Department, because Hollings' opposition is enough under Senate rules to keep the armed-pilots bill from coming up for a vote.
"A freestanding bill is not the only way to pass something in the Senate," said Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H.