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Budget ax falls on armed pilot program

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 9:30 PM EST, Mon February 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama's proposed budget cuts in half funds for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program
  • The program trains pilots and allows them to carry handguns in the cockpit
  • Members call themselves the "single most cost-effective counter-terrorism measure"
  • But officials say other measures have increased security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Barack Obama's budget ax is falling hard on a program that allows pilots to carry handguns in the cockpit as a last line of defense against terrorists.

Obama's proposed 2013 budget cuts in half funds for the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. The current budget of $25 million a year -- which goes for such things as conducting background checks, training the pilots, and periodic gun proficiency tests and retraining, in addition to administrative costs -- would be cut to $12 million.

The thousands of armed pilots, who greatly outnumber the better-known federal air marshals, volunteer for the job, train at federal academies and are deputized to use their weapons in the cockpit. They call themselves the "single most cost-effective counter-terrorism measure" the government has taken.

The federal government spends about $15 a flight for FFDOs, as armed pilots are called, compared to $3,000 per flight for federal air marshals, said Mike Karn, vice president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association. Those numbers are based on costs of the respective programs divided by the number of flights covered by armed pilots and air marshals.

As recently as last March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano voiced support for the program, agreeing with Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minnesota, a former airline pilot and FFDO, that it was a vital part of the country's layer defenses.

But in the budget documents released Monday, administration officials said security measures put in place since 2001, such as locked cockpit doors and 100% screening of airline passengers, "have greatly lowered the chances of unauthorized cockpit access."

The proposed budget also cuts Federal Air Marshal Service funds almost 4%, to $927 million. It is unclear whether that cut will result in fewer air marshals. The number of air marshals is classified.

The $36.5 million budget cut for the air marshals reflects "efficiencies and program changes that leverage other aviation security system enhancements, allowing for more efficient mission deployments focused on high-risk flights," according to the Department of Homeland Security.

A current flight deck officer, contact by CNN, called cuts to the FFDO program "very surprising."

"I think that this is just another example of essentially TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and DHS mismanaging a highly efficient program, that operates on cents on the dollar compared to (air marshals)," said the pilot, who spoke on condition that he not be named. The program prohibits pilots from identifying themselves as FFDOs for security reasons.

The flight deck officer said he believes the cuts will result in fewer flights being covered by armed officers.

"You're cutting the feet off the (FFDO) program," said Mark Weiss, a former pilot who served as deputy chairman of security for the Allied Pilots Association, the bargaining unit for American Airlines. "It's extremely shortsighted."

Weiss, now with the Spectrum Group in Washington, said the government is sending a "very clear message" to armed pilots that they are not valued. "It's probably (a message) that they're very appreciative of hearing in terrorist camps around the world," he added.

Like the federal air marshal program, the FFDO program has been marred by occasional mishaps. An FFDO pilot was removed from the program, and his airline, after he accidentally discharged his gun in the cockpit. No one was injured.

And last year, a traveler at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport accidentally picked up the wrong bag -- a bag belonging to an FFDO and containing a firearm. The incident resulted in two flights being delayed, and the hour-long closure of an airport checkpoint. But the firearm was secured in a fashion that "rendered it incapable of being discharged," a TSA spokesman said at the time.

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