Are passengers safer because airline pilots can carry guns in the cockpit to ward off would-be hijackers?
Since the Homeland Security Act of 2002, thousands of U.S. commercial pilots have been toting guns as an additional layer of protection in the skies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Now the Obama administration wants to cut funding by half for a program that trains pilots, officially known as federal flight deck officers, to keep firearms handy and use lethal force to defend against air piracy.
President Obama's budget for the coming year, released last month, proposes $12.5 million for the federal flight deck officer and flight crew training program, down from $25 million this year.
The White House budget also calls for a $36.5 million cut in the Federal Air Marshal Service, although $929.6 million would remain in that program.
In an environment of overall budget tightening, the administration proposes that the TSA spend $7.6 billion in 2013, a cut of $197 million.
The money used to train pilots to carry guns is needed for higher "potential security benefits," Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole told a House appropriations subcommittee this week.
Over the last decade, aviation security measures, including the screening of all passengers and their carry-on bags, and reinforced cockpit doors on aircraft, "have greatly lowered the risk of unauthorized cockpit access," Pistole said.
The cuts have been criticized by labor unions representing airline pilots, who say that the flight deck officer program is cost-efficient because pilots volunteer their time and that any budget reduction could lead to the program's demise.
"Cutting more than half the funding is going to have a pretty dramatic and negative consequence," said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 53,000 pilots in the United States and Canada.
"We are also displeased that they are cutting back the Air Marshal Service. These are highly experienced, qualified individuals who in tandem with the flight deck officers enhance the security of our skies."
Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 US Airways Group pilots, said: "We hope we never need to use our weapons. But if that cockpit door is ever breached, and there are terrorists on board, that could be the difference in that airplane being taken over and used as a weapon of mass destruction or not."
Ray said pilots receive "intensive" training for eight days, and "recurrent" training every six months.
"A lot of pilots feel a necessity to do this. They don't receive a dime," Ray said. "It costs them money in time, hotels, and meals."
Since 2002, pilot volunteers have been trained - the number is classified because of security concerns - at a federal complex in New Mexico. They carry government-issued pistols.
A TSA spokesman in 2009 said there were 12,000 federal flight deck officers, and the program was expanding.
Airlines have not said much recently about the program run by the Federal Air Marshal Service, an arm of the TSA.
"A multilayered approach remains the best strategy to protect our passengers and crews as part of a larger risk-based strategy that focuses on greatest threats," Airlines for America, which represents airlines, said in a statement Thursday.
Before pilots were allowed to carry guns in cockpits, the group - then the Air Transport Association - expressed concern about arming pilots, saying there were too many unanswered questions, such as the results of a misfired gun on pressurized aircraft.
"While we are spending literally billions of dollars to keep dangerous weapons off of aircraft, the idea of intentionally introducing thousands of deadly weapons into the system appears to be dangerously counterproductive," 21 airline CEOs said in a letter to Congress in 2002.
Although there have been no reports of pilots drawing their weapons on passengers, on March 24, 2008, a gun belonging to a pilot on a US Airways flight from Denver to Charlotte, N.C., accidentally went off as the plane was on approach to land.
No one was injured, and the plane landed safely. The pilot said the gun went off while he was trying to stow it in the cockpit. The bullet tore a small hole in the exterior of the plane.