Bush wants U.S. back in the air

President to unveil his proposals for better airline safety

`Confidence-boosting' acts

Ideas include putting armed federal agents on most flights

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 27, 2001|By David L. Greene and Karen Hosler | David L. Greene and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush will unveil a package of measures today to try to improve safety and restore confidence in U.S. air travel, including strengthening cockpit doors and putting armed federal agents on most domestic flights, administration and congressional aides said.

Bush will also propose that the federal government assume a greater role in overseeing airport security and screening passengers.

The president is scheduled to visit Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where he will outline his plans to airline workers. Their industry has been all but paralyzed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

"This terrible incident has said to many Americans - convinced many Americans - to stay at home," the president said. He declined to discuss the details of his plan yesterday.

"We'll announce some confidence-boosting measures, some concrete proposals," Bush said. "And I believe we'll be able to work with Congress to get them done in an expeditious way."

Yesterday, Delta became the latest airline to announce major job cuts, saying it planned to lay off 13,000 employees. The industry and its manufacturers - which were struggling even before the terrorist attacks as the economy slowed and business travel declined - have lost more than 100,000 jobs since then.

Much of the trouble stems from a widespread fear of flying, polls show, since four jetliners were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a remote field in Pennsylvania.

Airline executives and members of Congress have pushed for overhauling airline security, to give the federal government more direct involvement.

Bush is expected to announce his support for expanding the federal air marshals program. Currently, armed plainclothes agents ride on only some domestic flights; the president's plan would place agents on most, if not all, flights.

Because it will take time to hire enough new air marshals, the administration will favor using other federal law enforcement employees, perhaps from the FBI or Immigration and Naturalization Service, to fill in temporarily.

Officials said Bush will also unveil steps to make cockpit doors sturdier, to bar intruders while not preventing pilots from entering the cabin. Eventually, two doors would likely be placed between the cockpit and the cabin, each requiring a separate key.

Cockpits would also be equipped with cameras so pilots could monitor the cabins, congressional aides said. But Bush said he was reluctant to support arming pilots, a suggestion by the industry and some members of Congress.

"There may be better ways to do it than that," he said.

The president is not expected to support a bill put forth by a bipartisan group of senators to make security workers federal employees and put them wholly under federal control. Airlines now contract with private companies that provide screeners who scan luggage and staff metal detectors.

Republicans have resisted the idea of hiring new federal employees to handle airport security, saying it would needlessly balloon the federal work force. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has estimated that filling those jobs with civil servants would require hiring 28,000 employees and cost $1.8 billion.

Instead, Bush is expected to suggest that airlines continue to use private companies for airport security, but that the government more closely supervise them. This would mean stricter background checks and better training for airport security screeners.

There would be new federal standards for screening passengers, including requiring everyone from pilots to mechanics to go through metal detectors and bag searches.

In a compromise with lawmakers who want the federal government to take full control of airport security, Bush will offer states money to hire members of the National Guard temporarily to handle security at some airports, a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The National Guard members would serve until private contractors can hire employees able to pass background checks and meet federal standards, the official said.

Bush has committed $3 billion to tighten airline security, money that will come out of the $40 billion Congress approved after the terrorist attacks. Some of the steps Bush unveils today would require congressional approval. Others could be enacted immediately.

Senate Republican Whip Don Nickles said yesterday that he expected Bush to propose a new tax on airline tickets to help offset the cost of some of the expanded security measures.

Nickles and other lawmakers also said they are hopeful that Bush will raise the possibility of reopening Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, which remains closed for security reasons. That idea has widespread congressional support.

Officials said the president will call for a new system to prevent airplane transponders, which are used to track planes, from being turned off, as they were in the hijacked jetliners.

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