Airline security takeover gets OK

Congress allows hiring of 28,000 federal workers

Bush to sign Monday

November 17, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two months after hijacked airliners were turned into bombs, Congress voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a federal takeover of airport security that calls for sharply tightened screening of passengers and baggage.

The legislation, passed before lawmakers left town for their Thanksgiving recess, sets in motion the most sweeping upgrade of aviation security in decades.

It calls for the hiring and training of up to 28,000 additional federal workers to serve as screeners, sky marshals and security supervisors. Private workers hired by the airlines have been performing most of those jobs.

The measure also sets rigid new standards for the airport workers, who must be American citizens and pass criminal background checks. Tighter screening rules will require that all checked bags be subjected to the same examination and searches that now apply only to carry-on items.

President Bush, who promised this week to "set high standards and enforce them," is expected to sign the bill into law Monday - just two days before the start of the busiest travel season of the year.

Holiday travelers might see few signs of the heightened security regimen, which will take a year to implement fully. Airlines have begun taking some of the steps required by the legislation, such as securing cockpit doors and putting cameras in cabins. And Bush has ordered the National Guard to provide additional security during the holiday season.

Federal supervisors from the Department of Transportation are also expected to begin surveying the nation's more than 4,000 airports to assess security precautions and determine what needs to be done to improve them.

The legislation authorizes pilots to keep a gun in the cockpit if they have the appropriate permits and training, and are granted approval by the Department of Transportation and their air carrier.

Lawmakers said their goal was to plug holes in the aviation security system that allowed hijackers to board four airliners Sept. 11 with weapons lethal enough to overpower the crews and direct three of the planes into attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.

"We are gathered here to raise the bar of safety higher than we ever have before," Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, said before the House voted 410 to 9 in favor of the measure.

The nine votes of dissent in House, which followed a unanimous voice vote of approval in the Senate, reflected lingering concerns about the main source of dispute over the bill: whether the screeners should be federal workers or whether the private contractors performing those jobs could be allowed to continue, but under close federal supervision.

"This doesn't give the president enough flexibility," said Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, who voted against the measure. "When we micromanage like this, we cause damage."

The House, under the prodding of Bush and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, narrowly approved a measure last week that would have given the president the choice to use either system or a combination of the two. The Senate voted unanimously this month to require that private contract employees be replaced by federal workers.

Bush and DeLay agreed to the compromise that calls for an entirely federal system for two years after the one-year transition but allows airports to seek approval to use private contractors after that.

Many Republican lawmakers said during the weeks of bitter debate that they objected to bloating the federal work force with thousands of new workers who would be difficult to fire. House Majority Leader Dick Armey charged that Democrats supporting the federal workers were trying to create union jobs at the behest of their backers in organized labor.

Democrats countered that DeLay was fighting to protect the interests of the private security companies doing the screening, even though their record has been marred with lapses.

"I hope we never see any of those private contractors again," said South Carolina Democrat Ernest F. Hollings, the Commerce Committee chairman, who was the fiercest advocate for the use of federal workers.

Under the legislation, the new airport screeners will not have the same civil service protections as other federal employees. They will not have the right to strike and could easily be fired for failing to perform their job adequately.

Even so, lawmakers said, the screener positions will be significantly elevated from the minimum wage jobs they are today. Starting salaries are expected to range between $25,000 and $30,000 a year.

"With the economy the way it is today, I think there's going to be a lot of interest in those jobs," said Rep. Greg Ganske, an Iowa Republican who favored the Senate's all-federal-worker approach.

Although the Senate prevailed on the legislation's main point of contention, much of the final legislation was written in the House.

For example, the Senate wanted to make aviation security a responsibility of the Justice Department because some senators said they didn't trust the Federal Aviation Administration, which they said had failed in its oversight role.

The compromise bill includes a House provision that would create a semi-autonomous Transportation Security Administration within the Department of Transportation that will oversee security for railways, bus lines and ports as well as airports.

Baltimore Democrat Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin called that a particularly attractive feature of the legislation.

"We in Maryland recognize the importance of increasing security at the port of Baltimore, on Amtrak and other rail lines, at bridges and tunnels, as well as at our airports," Cardin said. "The new multi-modal security office within DOT will facilitate improvements in each of these areas."

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