The announcement was made at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing by John Magaw, undersecretary for transportation security. It followed months of debate over whether arming pilots would be a deterrent to hijackers.
Both Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge previously indicated their opposition to arming pilots.
Magaw announced his decision in response to a question from Arizona Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), the top Republican on the committee.
"Pilots need to concentrate on flying the plane," Magaw said later in the hearing. Specially trained air marshals should be the only armed officers on board, he added.
"These marshals are trained not only in the use of weapons but all the things that build up to that," Magaw said. "They have to practice all of these things in a tight aircraft. They have special firearms training. We don't want them shooting the firearm with the potential of bringing that airplane down."
Magaw said the pilots could use in-flight maneuvers to keep the hijackers off guard and suggested installing cameras in the cabin so pilots can see the results of any actions they take.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., a co-sponsor of legislation to arm pilots, asked Magaw to reconsider his opposition.
"Those who want to be armed will put themselves through the same training the air marshals go through," Burns said.
Magaw said a formal announcement of the decision will be made later in the week. Airline pilots have been pushing for guns, saying it would allow them to confront a hijacker who breaks into the cockpit. Hijackers took over four commercial airlines on Sept. 11, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon (news - web sites). The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Flight attendants, meanwhile, have advocated nonlethal weapons, such as stun guns, that they could use in emergencies.
Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who chairs the Commerce Committee, said guns would not be needed as long as pilots kept cockpit doors locked while in flight.
"You can put the rule in right now and cut out all the argument about pistols and stun guns," Hollings said.
Opponents of arming pilots have said reinforced cockpit doors now required on all planes mean that pistols are unnecessary. They have also expressed concern that an errant shot might hit a passenger or damage a key electrical system on the plane.
Besides the Senate bill, a bill in the House would allow pilots to be armed. The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to take up the bill this week.