WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack is taking on an Obama administration plan to downsize a federal program that allows specially trained commercial airline pilots to carry guns in the cockpit.
Obama’s proposed 2013 budget would cut funding for the $25 million-a-year Federal Flight Deck Officers program in half. In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Friday, Cravaack said even the current figure isn’t enough to certify all the pilots who want into the program, and he’s introducing a bill doubling it’s funding, offsetting the new spending with cuts elsewhere.
“This is a challenge for us: the FFDO program is not expanding,” he said. “We are introducing this bill and we will lobby hard for this program.”
For the back-story, we need to go back to 9/11.
Cravaack, then a pilot with Northwest Airlines, was holding his eight-month-old child when a babysitter told him about a plane hitting the World Trader Center. Cravaack assumed it was a small personal craft, accidentally steering into one of the twin towers on a sightseeing flight. The babysitter told it was a commercial jet.
“I’m racing through all the scenarios in my mind as to how that could occur,” he said in his speech. “Then I turn on the television and saw the second plane hit. … That’s how it started.”
At the time, pilots were barred from bringing firearms onto the flight deck, and had been since 1987. Before then, it was commonplace for pilots to be armed while flying — and when U.S. mail was on board, it was required, said Tracy Price, the director of the Airline Security Consulting Group.
But after 9/11, Congress passed laws establishing the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Along the way, it established the Federal Flight Deck Officer program. Its $25 million funding level has been flat since then, and Cravaack said it generally costs the government only $15 per flight to operate.
Most pilots have to pay out-of-pocket for their twice-yearly certification and Cravaack said the system is backlogged with new pilots waiting to get licenses. The program didn’t certify a single officer last year, he said.
It’s rare for a pilot to actually need his or her gun when flying — a panel of air safety advocates at the Heritage event was unable to name a single instance in which it’s happened — but FFDO supporters say it’s just another way to keep flyers safe.
“There are many and varied threats when a passenger gets on that aircraft and the pilot fires up those engines,” Cravaack said.
‘We just think we could do it for less’
The Obama administration is focusing more on a risk-based approach to air travel security in which would-be threats are pre-screened before boarding an aircraft. Under that a system, a program like FFDO isn’t needed.
During testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee in February, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said risk-based programs would take first priority when the Obama administration sets its budgets.
“The program is not risk-based. You will have a FFDO whether [a threat] is on the flight or not,” Napolitano said. “We have not predicted its demise, we just think we could do it for less.”
At the time, Cravaack asked Napolitano what she considers to be the last line of defense for air travelers. Her response — a reinforced cockpit door — was panned at Friday’s Heritage event.
Cravaack said armed pilots serve as both a deterrent for would-be terrorists and a “safety net” for flyers, a last line of defense in case someone managed to get into the cockpit.
The panel backed Cravaack, equating the layers of air travel security — from risk-based measures and airport screening to the reinforced cockpit door and the FFDO program — to the redundant mechanical systems built into aircraft as safety measures. The panel said they backed risked-based screening techniques, but said the government shouldn’t move away from programs that work right now.
“When you’re up there in an aircraft,” FFDO Association Vice President Mike Karn said, “you can’t open the window and ask for help.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry