President signs airline security bill

Baggage screeners to be federal workers within a year

November 20, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. - As the air travel industry braces for a holiday season light on passengers, President Bush signed into law yesterday an airline security bill that he said "should give all Americans greater confidence when they fly."

The law reflects a compromise in Congress, where Democrats who wanted airport security personnel to be federal employees wrangled for several weeks with some Republicans who opposed hiring a fresh corps of civil servants for those jobs.

The final product will make all 28,000 baggage screeners federal employees within a year, except for those at five airports that will take part in a pilot program using nongovernment workers. After three years, airports can ask the federal government for permission to rehire contract employees.

Travelers will see little impact from the bill during the holiday season - it is expected to take months to hire the new federal workers. Nevertheless, Bush said that by taking "aggressive and permanent steps," the federal government was demonstrating to the public a "new commitment to security in the air."

"That's good news, as Americans travel to celebrate this season with their loved ones," the president said at a signing ceremony at Reagan National Airport here.

Americans have been jittery about flying since Sept. 11, and the airlines have suffered. The Air Transport Association, the trade group of major U.S. airlines, reported that passenger travel last month was down 23 percent from the average for that month in recent years.

The association released a statement yesterday telling people that it is safer to fly than to drive, and offering a statistic that 42,000 people are killed on the nation's roadways annually. In a given three-month period, the statement said "more people die on the nation's highways than have perished in all airline accidents since the advent of commercial aviation."

The airline industry is predicting that passenger traffic over Thanksgiving weekend will be down at least 15 percent to 20 percent from a year ago.

Enactment of the legislation is another in a series of actions by the federal government to beef up airline security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The government offered funding to airlines to reinforce cockpit doors and earlier this month, the major airlines reported that they had completed the task on some 4,000 aircraft. Armed federal air marshals have also been added to more flights.

The president reported yesterday that the airlines have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct overnight security sweeps of planes.

Under the law, the Department of Transportation will establish an agency headed by an undersecretary to oversee all airport security and set up tougher guidelines and background checks for security personnel. The department is also authorized to permit pilots to carry guns on some flights.

The bill requires that within 60 days all checked luggage will go through the same security screening as carry-on luggage. Explosives detection systems must also be installed at airports by the end of next year. Passengers will be paying a $2.50 fee every time they board a plane - up to a maximum of $5 per one-way trip - to help fund the new measures.

Bush cheered enactment of the legislation Thursday even though he had backed House Republicans as they battled against putting airport security workers on the federal payroll.

The president had complained of creating a new force of federal workers, saying "an inflexible, one-size-fits-all requirement fails to permit security tailored to the very different circumstances that exist at airports across the country."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, said yesterday that Congress "should have acted much sooner" on the measure, but added that he was "gratified, at long last, that we passed, and the president has signed, a strong bill."

Bush has been urging people for weeks to remain alert, but also to return to normal routines.

His pleas have been well-received by the tourism industry, another sector that was bruised by the terrorist attacks and which received permission from the White House to use video clips of Bush in a public relations blitz that begins tomorrow.

The 30-second spots include brief segments from several Bush appearances - including a visit to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and before a joint session of Congress - in which the president calls on Americans to keep on with their everyday lives.

The Tourism Industry Association of America has spent $12.4 million to buy airtime on major television and cable networks in the United States, and on stations abroad.

Employees of hotels, restaurants, theme parks and other businesses that saw their revenues diminish after the attacks will speak in the segments about "the spirit of America" and "the importance of seeing your country," said association Vice President Dexter Koehl.

The president signed the aviation bill on his first day back in Washington, having spent the past six days at his Texas ranch. According to aides, Bush spent Sunday with his father, fly-fishing for large-mouth bass on a pond on his 1,600-acre property.

Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

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