US pilots unions oppose cuts to cockpit defence programme

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Unions representing pilots at US carriers are opposing US president Barack Obama's proposed cuts to a programme that trains flight deck officers to use firearms.

The Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), which represents more than 50,000 pilots at 34 US and Canadian airlines, and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) released statements in recent days urging lawmakers not to approve cuts to the Federal Flight Deck Officer programme.

President Obama's proposed fiscal year 2014 budget would cut all funding to the program, which received $25 million in fiscal year 2012.

"Our union and pilots will continue to make the case that this is simply one of the best federal programs to protect passengers, pilots and staff, and the general public from acts of terrorism," says SWAPA president Mark Richardson in a statement on 17 April. "SWAPA will work with representatives and senators to fight to avert these cuts."

SWAPA represents more than 6,300 Southwest pilots.

The Federal Flight Deck Officer programme, operated by the Department of Homeland Securities' Transportation Security Administration (TSA), provides firearms and defence training to airline flight officers, and allows them to carry firearms in the cockpit, according to the TSA.

The programme, available to pilots, flight engineers and navigators, also provides training on legal issues and the psychology of survival.

ALPA president Lee Moak says in a media release that the programme is a strong deterrent against terrorism that costs "only a few dollars per protected flight".

"ALPA will lead the fight to ensure this crucial programme continues to protect our nation's airliners," says Moak.

ALPA says thousands of pilots have received training since the programme's inception and some 800 recently volunteered for a few open training slots.

But TSA secretary Janet Napolitano defends the cuts.

In testimony on 17 April to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs she tells lawmakers that the TSA is moving towards "risk-based" security measures. The TSA's PreCheck programme, which provides expedited security screening at airports for pre-screened passengers, and the Federal Air Marshals program are examples of risk-based security, she says.

"[The] FFDO programme is not risk-based. It's just happenstance whether you happen to have a pilot on board that went through the training," says Napolitano.

Some lawmakers disagree.

"Part of deterrence is not knowing who is armed and is not armed. I feel better even if 5% of the pilots have [training]," Kentucky Senator Rand Paul tells Napolitano. "Terrorists don't know [who the] 5% are."

Paul says the proposed cuts show "a lack of commitment to the idea of self defence and sends a huge signal to terrorists around the world [that] we are not going to arm our pilots."