Hill gains accord on air safety

Passage by Congress is expected today

Bush likely to sign

`We got the best we could'

Plan would federalize screeners with option to privatize in 3 years

War On Terrorism : The Nation

November 16, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After weeks of wrangling by House and Senate negotiators, Congress is expected today to approve a compromise airline-security measure that would put federal workers at most checkpoints where passengers are screened.

The compromise reached yesterday to create a new federal security system would allow airports to seek approval to switch to private contractors three years after the law takes effect. The Democrat-led Senate wanted federal workers at the checkpoints, while the Republican-majority House preferred private contractors.

President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law as soon as it reaches his desk, probably early next week. Bush had been pressing Congress to act on the measure, proposed in response to the Sept. 11 airline hijackings.

In a statement from his ranch in Texas, Bush said the agreement "gives the federal government the flexibility to ensure a safe transition to a new aviation security system and will ultimately offer local authorities an option to employ the highest quality work force - public or private."

Lawmakers said they hoped the new system would restore confidence in air travel, which was further shaken by this week's crash in New York, which, investigators say, appears unrelated to any terrorist incident.

"I am extremely pleased," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "Our skies and our airports are going to be a lot safer."

Few of the changes will take place immediately, but "from a confidence point of view, I think [the new law] will have a big effect," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who helped craft the measure.

The timing of the final dealing appeared to have been dictated less by public pressure for swift action than by a self-imposed political deadline: Congress' Thanksgiving recess, which begins tomorrow.

"We had to do this before we left town for a week," said Rep. Jack Quinn, a New York Republican, referring to the political consequences of inaction.

"Otherwise, I think we would have begun taking on water," he said.

The measure would end the current security system, which makes the airline industry responsible for passenger safety.

For years, despite loud objections from critics, the industry has relied largely on low-paid, poorly trained workers at security checkpoints.

Under the new law, the Department of Transportation will create an agency that will assume responsibility for all airport security - from the perimeter to the passenger gates.

Within 60 days of being signed into law, the new system will require that all checked baggage be subjected to the mechanical screening that is given to carry-on bags.

If enough machines are not immediately available, hand-screening of checked luggage will be required, potentially creating a bottleneck that could prolong the already long process of catching a flight.

The price for the tighter security regime could reach between $4 billion and $5 billion a year, said Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, who helped draft the legislation.

The industry will contribute the $1 billion annually it is spending on security now, he said.

An additional $1.6 billion will come from a new $2.50 ticket fee on each leg of a trip up to a maximum of $5 one way. The remainder, Mica said, will come from taxpayers.

Though federal control and supervision of aviation security will begin as soon as the president signs the bill, the legislation provides for a transition period of up to a year to complete the changeover to an entirely federal work force.

The Senate, which voted 100-0 in favor of hiring an estimated 28,000 federal workers to serve as screeners instead of private contractors, prevailed over the House position, which would have given Bush the option of using either system or a combination of the two.

"We wanted federalization. We got federalization," said Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Hollings had insisted throughout the debate that airline security should no longer be "contracted out."

But House Republicans opposed replacing private employees with federal workers who could join unions and be difficult to fire.

Putting the best face on their failure to prevail on that point, they said they had at least laid the groundwork in the compromise for a partially private system.

The measure would allow one airport in each of five size categories ranging from major hubs to tiny, rural facilities to experiment with pilot programs using private screeners under close federal supervision.

After three years, any airport could apply for permission to switch to a private system.

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