Committee Corner
News from ALPA's Committees

One Year Later
ALPA Works with Congress and the TSA to Improve the FFDO Program

National Security

By Jan Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2004, p.24

ALPA delivered a number of important messages to key members of Congress in late April. Two of these messages:

 Don’t lower the existing high standards for selecting and training airline flight crew members to be federal flight deck officers (FFDOs).

 Do change the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules to permit FFDOs to carry their assigned weapon on their person at all times.

ALPA representatives conveyed these and other recommendations to the lawmakers and their staffs as the FFDO program neared its first anniversary and the TSA prepared to train its first class of all-cargo FFDOs (see "First Cargo FFDO Class," page 26).

Following are highlights from the "white paper" ALPA presented to the congressional leaders. The full text can be found on the ALPA National Security Committee’s new website in the members-only portion of the Association’s website,


ALPA was the first organization to call for creation of the FFDO program, which became a reality when the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act was enacted as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

ALPA applauds Congress for its vision in recognizing the need for the program, the benefits it offers, and for passing the legislation mandating its creation. ALPA is grateful for the opportunity to have worked hand-in-hand with congressional leaders on this important initiative.

In January 2003, ALPA began participating in a TSA-sponsored industry working group, convened to guide the agency in establishing the FFDO program’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and training curriculum.

The following month, the TSA Policy Executive Steering Committee (PESC) made recommendations to Adm. James Loy, then TSA administrator, regarding implementing the program. After Adm. Loy accepted and approved these recommendations, the TSA defined the program and announced it publicly. Although ALPA concurred with a number of the PESC recommendations, it publicly objected to certain critical portions of the program, including (but not limited to) those related to the procedures for transporting and carrying assigned weapons. In spite of those differences, ALPA has maintained a positive working relationship with the TSA and provided assistance in the program’s deployment.

For example, ALPA complied with the agency’s request for help in selecting a pool of potential candidates for the April 2003 prototype class and accepted the TSA’s invitation to visit the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga., to preview and critique the planned training curriculum (see "A Deterrent to Terror," June/July 2003). In April 2003, 44 pilots successfully completed the prototype FFDO training curriculum at FLETC. Since then, thousands of FFDOs have been deputized and deployed in the field. TSA trainers have frequently commented on the high caliber of the candidates undergoing FFDO training. Because most of these new FFDOs are ALPA members, the Association clearly has a vested interest in the integrity of the program and continues to engage in a close working relationship with the TSA in its deployment.

Concept of the FFDO program

From the outset, ALPA stressed that the FFDO program should not be an effort simply to arm pilots. The Association has emphasized that the TSA must select, train, and deputize as federal law enforcement officers (LEOs) qualified candidates chosen from the airline pilot population. This stated objective was critical to Congress’s approving the FFDO program; ALPA will oppose any efforts to undo its success. Furthermore, the number of FFDOs trained is not the only objective. The quality of selection, training, equipment, and procedures are also important ingredients of a successful program.

ALPA believes that the FFDO program provides a great deterrent against attempted hijackings; it depends less on the number of armed pilots and more on their covertness, training, professionalism, and other important attributes.

Transport of weapons

Current FFDO SOPs related to carrying and transporting assigned weapons create significant safety and security risks. Evidence of this fact can be found in TSA statistics regarding numerous events involving mishandled and misplaced weapons. During the TSA/industry stakeholder meetings held in January and February 2003, federal law enforcement experts recommended that FFDOs be authorized to carry their assigned weapons on their person, because of inherent risks associated with using lockboxes. Statistical information generated from Uniform Crime Reports and an FBI internal study (and presented to the TSA) demonstrated that, in most cases in which a weapon was lost, mishandled, or stolen, it had been stored in a container and was not carried on the person responsible for it.

The TSA has prohibited any FFDO from possessing his or her weapon in the cabin of a passenger airliner, regardless of whether the FFDO is part of the crew assigned to that flight, deadheading, commuting, or on official travel. ALPA agrees that no FFDO traveling in the cockpit of a passenger airliner should leave it to respond to a disturbance in the cabin. However, the Association does not support the practice of prohibiting FFDOs who are deadheading, commuting, or on official travel from possessing their assigned weapons in the cabin.

Current protocols relating to transporting and carrying weapons represent the most seriously flawed aspect of the FFDO program. ALPA concurs with law enforcement and aviation security experts that FFDOs should not be separated from their weapons while in transit. Further, FFDOs should never be required to remove their weapon from their person while serving as an operating crewmember.

Psychological evaluations

Not everyone is suited for the demands of law enforcement, in which an LEO may encounter circumstances requiring split-second decisions on using deadly force. Pilots are well-educated, talented individuals with complex skills, but they are not automatically endowed with the personality characteristics and abilities preferred for LEOs. Personality traits represent a major factor in the equation used to decide a candidate’s suitability to be an FFDO. Standardized, proven psychological screening is very useful in determining whether he or she possesses the desired traits.

While ALPA supports the use of psychological and other types of applicant evaluations, they should be no more stringent than those that other federal law enforcement agencies use. These evaluations should not be used as an obstacle to the program, but as a component of its success.

Government discretion over FFDOs

Some have suggested that any airline flightcrew member who is employed by a passenger or cargo airline, holds a current FAA pilot certificate, and is not barred by federal law from receiving or possessing a firearm should automatically be qualified to participate in the FFDO program.

ALPA agrees that an FAA airman certificate demonstrates a pilot’s physical fitness to apply for the FFDO position, but does not support the concept that an airman certificate represents sufficient evidence to override the need for the psychological assessment and background investigation of FFDO candidates. The federal government must retain responsibility and authority for selecting suitable FFDO candidates because it is accountable to the public for the actions of those selected to become FFDOs.

Proposed powers and privileges

Because of their limited jurisdiction and mission, FFDOs do not require, nor do they receive, the same amount of training as federal air marshals (FAMs) and other federal LEOs who have arrest authority. ALPA, therefore, recommends that existing law enforcement response protocols on aircraft should be followed, with FAMs maintaining primary jurisdiction over events requiring law enforcement intervention. FFDOs should hold a defined place in the law enforcement response continuum on an aircraft, following the lead of any other duly authorized federal LEO, but with authority that supercedes that of any state or local LEO on the airplane. Nothing in the law should prohibit an FFDO from acting reasonably to prevent an act of terrorism, or otherwise to protect life, in defense of the cockpit, or in the worst-case scenario, to protect the aircraft.

The presence of any LEO (including an FFDO) on an airliner in no way supercedes the clearly established authority of the captain. However, captain’s authority does not prevent a federal LEO, such as a FAM or FFDO, from carrying out his or her federally mandated duties. No legislative amendments to the FFDO program should interfere with or alter captain’s authority established in law.

Preference criteria for pilots

ALPA does not support the concept that prior military service alone provides sufficient training, experience, or qualification for a pilot to function effectively as an FFDO. Besides unique handgun proficiency skills, FFDO training must encompass several other areas of expertise, such as mastery of the use-of-force continuum, specialized defensive tactics, and familiarity with protocols for dealing with other LEOs on the airplane.

Regarding expedited deputization of current or former LEOs, ALPA agrees that the program could make more efficient use of their talents. The Association believes that such candidates must attend FFDO basic training, but should be allowed to proceed through the curriculum at an accelerated pace, depending on their demonstrated proficiencies in the required skills.

Additional recommendations

Praising the FFDO training curriculum and the FAM program, ALPA urged the TSA to (1) expand FFDO training to several sites throughout the United States for pilot convenience and (2) develop and implement joint FAM/FFDO training exercises.

FFDOs currently are authorized to fly in mission status only on domestic routes. This policy denies a valuable counterterrorism asset to international flights and creates hardship for FFDOs on reserve who are assigned international trip segments and must find a way to secure their assigned weapon or refuse the trip. ALPA feels that the TSA should obtain agreements with foreign governments to allow international deployment of FFDOs, who could follow existing FAM procedures for international travel.

Flight crews operating all-cargo flights often face greater security risks than pilots flying passenger airliners. Cargo airplanes have no requirement to cancel a flight for an inoperable cockpit door and, in some cases, no reinforced cockpit door, or no door at all; in many cases, less ramp security; no added layer of protection provided by flight attendants, able-bodied passengers, FAMs, or other LEOs; and company employees or nonemployees present, escorting livestock or precious cargo. ALPA thus recommends that the jurisdiction of FFDOs assigned to all-cargo flights be expanded to include the entire interior of the aircraft.

ALPA also pointed out that the TSA must provide more effective support and better management for its FFDOs. After graduating from basic training, an FFDO is field-deployed on mission status without any field training officer or front-line supervisor available to help him or her transition into the realities of the assignment and provide ongoing support. The FFDO is merely supplied with a TSA phone number to call if problems arise.

Communications from TSA headquarters have been infrequent. Very often, FFDOs operate in an information vacuum and feel detached from their parent organization. ALPA has urged the TSA to establish and communicate a more extensive management and reporting structure, but the agency has not yet done so.

Phone calls and U.S. mail frequently serve as the media by which FFDO information is transmitted. The TSA is unable to keep all FFDOs advised of changes to their SOPs in a timely fashion, and FFDOs receive no intelligence briefings relating to their daily operating environment, known threats, or significant, suspicious trends. FFDOs also should be able to communicate with each other via authorized, appropriate, and secure means, and authorized and enabled to provide peer support through a professional standards mechanism created in partnership with the TSA.

FFDOs are uncertain of their status if they become the subject of an internal TSA investigation. The TSA has not informed them of their duties, rights, and exposure to liability in such circumstances. This issue has not prevented pilots from applying to the program, but it is a cause of concern for them. The TSA should rectify this deficiency.

A few years ago, ALPA was involved in the FAA’s development of the Law Enforcement Officer Verification Card System (LEOVCS), which was designed to verify the identity and employment status of armed LEOs transiting airport security checkpoints. The TSA has opted against installing LEOVCS, contrary to ALPA’s recommendations. That system, or one that will serve the same function, should be implemented as soon as practical, and it should identify FFDOs. They should be screened at checkpoints in the same fashion as other armed LEOs.

ALPA believes that the TSA should be required to cover all costs associated with participation in the FFDO program, such as travel, food, and lodging expenses. ALPA also recommends that airlines be required to grant pilots leave from work to obtain FFDO training.

A law enforcement badge is a readily recognizable symbol of authority and a standard item issued to LEOs. It can help others to quickly identify an officer operating in emergency conditions, particularly when LEOs from different agencies unexpectedly come together in handling an event. FFDOs are the only federal LEOs not issued badges. For the overall success of the program, ALPA strongly recommends that the TSA issue metallic badges to FFDOs.

Appreciating the TSA’s significant efforts in developing and deploying the FFDO program, ALPA will continue to provide its expertise to the TSA to ensure the safest, most prudent, and efficient implementation of the program.

ALPA also looks forward to continuing a dialogue with Congress to maximize the program’s integrity and potential benefit and is grateful for the interest that members of Congress have displayed in this last layer of defense against terrorism directed at U.S. airlines.—Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

First Cargo FFDO Class

They were making aviation history, these sweating pilots in protective pads and helmets, as they practiced weapon retention and disarming tactics against each other—the first Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) class to include pilots from all-cargo airlines.

The prototype cargo FFDO class took place the last week of April at the U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia, N.M. The cargo pilots’ presence in Artesia was the result of ALPA’s successful efforts on Capitol Hill to change the FFDO enabling legislation to include cargo pilots—despite the strong resistance of some cargo airline managements.

The pilots’ training also served as a backdrop for an interview with TSA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Training John Moran regarding the current status and accomplishments of the FFDO program.

Moran has nothing but good things to say about airline pilots who become FFDOs: "Pilots are highly motivated folks. Our instructors view pilots as their best students. We have a very high level of confidence in them.

"We want to get the word out to the pilots: ‘If you raise your hand, we’ll train you.’"

It’s not quite that easy—nor should it be. The TSA turns away about 4 percent of FFDO applicants—about 3 percent as a result of psychological testing; the rest, because of something in their background check.

For the 96 percent whose applications are accepted, however, Moran’s message is, "We want pilot participation. You can be in training a month after you begin the application process."

Moran is proud that the TSA developed the FFDO program in 90 days, as mandated by the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act of 2003. "We started with a clean sheet of paper and jumped right on it," he recalls. "We had significant help from ALPA and numerous other aviation organizations and law enforcement agencies."

Moran reports that the entire cost of producing and deploying an FFDO is around $5,000. Private industry, he says, would charge about $3,200 per trainee just for firearms training; working with FLETC, the TSA manages to keep the training cost down to about $1,700—and that includes training in defensive tactics, SOPs, legal issues, and more. The other program costs include conducting a psychological evaluation of the applicant and providing the FFDO’s Heckler & Koch .40SW autoloading pistol.

The federal government has budgeted $25 million for the FFDO program for FY2004 and again for FY2005.

"We’ve conducted weekly FFDO training since July 2003—except for one week to move from Glynco [Ga.] to Artesia," Moran says. "Since January 2004, we’ve gone from one class per week to two, and we’re looking at increasing that to three classes per week."

Regarding the prototype cargo FFDO class, Moran said, "We’re going to deploy them and get feedback from their field experience. We’ll make any changes in the training that might be necessary, based on their feedback."

The TSA, Moran says, has heard and acknowledged the complaints of ALPA and individual FFDOs regarding the agency’s requirement that FFDOs carry their assigned weapon in a lockbox when they are not in the cockpit. The agency has been studying that issue; he expects that the TSA will soon announce a change in those procedures.

On recurrent training, "We decided to require formal recurrent training twice a year, although FFDOs are allowed to practice at any time on their own," he explains. "We’ve contracted with ten sites—seven of them are private facilities—for requal. We looked at where pilots live before selecting the sites. Pilot convenience was one of our top factors in selecting the sites. The requalification program is flexible, and a pilot may select the site, day, and time that is most convenient for that pilot."

Last stop on the tour for reporters was a rough-and-tumble exercise in one of FLETC’s retired B-727s. As an instructor playing the role of a flight attendant started to enter the cockpit to deliver beverages, two other instructors in helmets and pads rushed him to breach the cockpit. Another instructor playing the first officer suddenly appeared in the doorway, shot both attackers, then slammed the cockpit door behind him and returned to his seat.

"It’s all about preventing another 9/11," Moran sums up. "Defend the cockpit, and get the airplane safely on the ground."—JWS