The Battle To Arm Pilots

Supporters of arming commercial airline pilots are asking Congress to overturn the Bush administration's decision not to allow firearms in the cockpits.

The House Transportation aviation subcommittee is to consider legislation Thursday to allow trained pilots to carry guns, and a bipartisan group of senators is moving ahead with a separate bill.

"While I'm disappointed with the Department of Transportation's decision, I will redouble my efforts to pass this measure," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. "It's imperative that we provide pilots with this crucial option."

The House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said he plans to have his panel consider the bill next month.

But in the Senate, the Commerce Committee chairman, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., remains opposed.

"Pilots are supposed to fly," said Hollings, whose panel oversees the airline industry in the Senate. "They're not supposed to shoot."

Transportation Undersecretary John Magaw reiterated the Bush administration's opposition to arming pilots to CBS News.

"We just don't want to subject the transportation system to additional firearms," he said. Magaw said the administration had not decided whether to allow nonlethal weapons, such as stun guns.

Airline pilots' unions plan to push for the legislation. They have organized petition drives and face-to-face meetings with lawmakers.

"At this point, our only recourse is to call on Congress to reassert its wishes regarding firearms in the cockpit," said Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which has given $1.5 million to federal candidates since January 1999.

Young said the Air Force now is authorized to shoot down a commercial airliner commandeered by hijackers. "I strongly believe 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," he said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, also endorsed guns in the cockpit.

"If hijackers are able to force themselves into the cockpit, all that pilots have to prevent the plane from being turned into a cruise missile is a crash ax, a flashlight and a flight manual," he said.

On the other side, the airline industry backed Magaw's decision. The Air Transport Association, trade group for the major airlines, cited the "unintended consequences of arming pilots with firearms and the potential dangers posed to innocent passengers and other crew members."

Also backing Magaw was the Association of Flight Attendants. "Guns in the cockpit offer a false sense of security because it doesn't do anything to protect the people in the back of the cabin that are left to die if there's an attacker on board," spokeswoman Dawn Deeks said.

In other news, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reported on how in the last six months, the FAA has issued at least 14 security bulletins warning airlines of various risks.

Just hours after accused shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to light an explosive in his sneakers last December, the FAA issued two urgent security orders directing U.S. airlines to immediately begin scanning passengers' shoes for bombs.

Three weeks later the FAA expanded the warning alerting airlines that "terrorists can use other articles of clothing to hide weapons and explosives."

But that was merely the first of what's become a flood of terrorism alerts from the FAA and the new Transportation Security Administration. At least 14 security bulletins have gone out since the first of the year warning airlines of various risks.

Many cover general threats saying terrorists could attack U.S. aviation in response to violence the Middle East or the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Some of the warnings, though, are more specific than the government has indicated.

Two alerts issued on the heels of FBI bulletins in January and February identified 22 al Qaeda operatives. Airlines were supplied with a no-fly list and warned, "All of these individuals should be considered extremely dangerous." Carriers received strict "instructions not to transport them."

Airlines were ordered to re-check passenger identification at airport boarding gates, and were alerted to look "for individuals traveling on forged, expired or altered travel documents." In addition, airport operators were cautioned that "al Qaeda terrorist elements have been trained to conduct surveillance at airports to uncover security vulnerabilities."

Numerous bulletins have been aimed at tightening security checkpoints. In one very specific example, the FAA warned that "terrorists may intend to target Western commercial aviation using improvised explosive devices concealed in laptop computers." The FAA ordered "that laptops be removed from their cases and that both the laptop and case be X-rayed separately."

Airlines complain that many of the government's security warnings are still too vague to be of much use. But the steady drumbeat of terrorism alerts will continue. Even without specifics, the FAA says it knows enough to know that U.S. aviation remains a prime target.