Justice agents begin air marshal training

Two federal committees consider restrictions on carry-on luggage

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 18, 2001|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Justice Department agents began training yesterday for new roles as armed air marshals, while two federal task forces pondered restrictions on carry-on luggage and other potential changes to the nation's aviation security system.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the expanded air marshal program at a news conference. Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said training for new agents had begun at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J.

Takemoto declined to disclose how many agents were at the center or how many overall might be put in the air.

The revival of the program is the latest in a series of steps designed to plug holes in what critics call a porous security network. More changes may be coming.

Last week, four members of the House Subcommittee on Aviation said they would introduce legislation that would bring screeners at airport security checkpoints under federal control and place limits on carry-on baggage to make the screeners' jobs easier.

Two "rapid response" task forces created Sunday by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta -- to examine improving airport and aircraft security -- will consider those and other options and make recommendations by Oct. 1.

Some industry officials said yesterday that many of the proposed changes are not new and expressed frustration that it took acts of terror -- the hijacking of four commercial jetliners -- to give them legitimacy.

Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a member of the aircraft task force, said her association has asked the FAA for years to limit the size and number of carry-on bags.

"It would reduce the amount of baggage that comes through those checkpoints," Friend said. "We believe it would improve the efficiency of screeners. It would increase the chances that they would, in fact, identify items that should not be on board the aircraft."

The FAA has rejected the idea of a standardized carry-on policy, choosing to let the airlines set their parameters. Given reports that the hijackers took control of the planes with knives and box-cutters, the aircraft task force is likely to revisit the issue, Takemoto said.

In the aftermath of last week's attacks, much attention has been focused on the low-paid screeners at airport checkpoints. Some say this work force should be brought under the auspices of the federal government to ensure that they are better trained.

Billie Vincent, the FAA's security chief from 1982 to 1986 and a security consultant in suburban Washington, said screeners should be made "quasi-law enforcement" officials, with salaries starting around $30,000 a year, several months of training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City and the opportunity to move on to agencies such as the FBI once they reach a certain level of proficiency.

"Let's make them a truly professional force," Vincent said.

Pilots seem intent upon improving cockpit integrity.

John Mazor, spokesman for the 66,000-member Air Line Pilots Association, said, "The first order of business is to get a fortified cockpit door designed, built and installed."

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