Fortifying the gates

Air travel safety: Congress is right to embrace federalization of airport security workers.

November 16, 2001

SECURITY, as defined by Webster's, includes "freedom from fear or anxiety" and "freedom from danger."

One's perception; the other is reality. The perception that flying is safe suffered again with the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 -- though no connection to terrorism has been found -- and repeated inspection lapses.

But there's reason to hope again, now that Congress has gotten its act together and agreed -- at least in principle -- on strong measures to screen passengers at airport checkpoints.

House and Senate negotiators said yesterday they had reached a smart compromise to end their battle over federalization of airport security workers: All screeners would immediately be placed under federal supervision, and within two years they would all become federal employees. However, individual airports that meet strict federal standards would be able to opt out of federal screening and go with local law enforcement or private screeners.

The deal comes just in time.

Current procedures have been exposed again and again as inadequate and dangerous.

They proved a huge failure on Sept. 11 when 19 hijackers got past security at three airports with boxcutters. They failed in many airports since to keep contraband off airliners. And they allow for companies like Argenbright Security -- which let a man pass through a Chicago airport checkpoint with knives and a stun gun -- to get new contracts at airports like Baltimore-Washington International despite their failure.

House Republican leaders had wanted to merely dress up that system by allowing private companies to remain on the job under tighter federal guidelines.

What emerged from the reported compromise makes better sense. Let's hope it sticks through the debate over which federal departments should handle the new oversight responsibilities and gets signed by President George W. Bush. For years, there have been incremental improvements to the private airport security system that clearly haven't made the safety difference Americans deserve. It was time for a big step.

Congress deserves accolades for taking it.

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