Aviation Security Bill Finally Takes Off

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Passengers wait near the American Airlines check-in counter

It was classic Beltway: In principle, nobody opposed the aviation security bill, but it still took Congress more than two months to deliver it to the Presidentís desk. After much delay, the bill sailed through a final congressional vote Friday.

The measure, which the President signed into law Monday, provides stricter screening guidelines for carry-on bags and passengers themselves, a more thorough x-ray procedure for checked bags and upgraded security systems on board airplanes. All this for the low, low price to the traveler of just $2.50 per passenger, per leg, or no more than $5.00 per one-way trip.

Why did this take so long? The major sticking point was a provision federalizing the jobs of all airport security personnel. The Republican-controlled House argued that federalizing the airport workforce would simply create more bureaucracy, make it harder to fire lackluster employees and, perhaps most important, provide the Democrats with 28,000 brand-new union members just in time for next yearís elections.

The Senate, under Democratic leadership, unanimously took the opposing view: Only by federalizing security workers and performing high-level background checks, their argument goes, can the government implement truly universal safety standards. Otherwise, you end up with the same private firms employing the same incompetent people whoíve allowed past lapses.

The compromise
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Itís all been settled now (more or less). According to the compromise reached Thursday evening, within a year all screening will be under federal supervision and performed by federal employees (who will be permitted to unionize, but not to strike). That will be the case for at least three years in all commercial airports — except for five airports, chosen for their varying sizes, which will test pilot programs for private screening firms. Those airports that meet federal standards after three years will have the option of using local law enforcement or private firms to maintain their security forces.

Bags checked through the new system will be subject to expanded inspections; airports have two months to implement the improved system and until the end of 2002 to install explosive detection x-ray systems. Lawmakers frustrated by airport management whoíve deemed cutting-edge screening devices "too slow" or "too unwieldy" have added a caveat: Airports will be required to actually use the new security systems to their fullest capacity.

Once on board, travelers should feel safer. The measure mandates that flight deck doors must be strengthened and kept locked during flights. More air marshals will travel on planes; their presence will be required on certain flights deemed "high risk." Pilots and crew will attend training courses on how to deal with hijackers, and the Transportation Department can authorize the use of weapons in cockpits. (United Airlines is ahead of the curve on that count; this week the company made stun guns available to its pilots).

Oversight will also shift, according to the new plan: A new agency will be created in the Transportation Department to supervise transportation security issues.

This new blueprint sounds good, certainly. It may even make Americans feel safer in the skies and in our airports. But in practical terms, what does all this actually mean for the average traveler?

Holes in security remain
One of the key complaints against U.S. security systems, confirmed this week at a Senate hearing on airline safety, is that less than 5 percent of checked bags are X-rayed or hand-searched before being loaded onto the belly of an airplane. That little matter will not be resolved for at least 12 months, according to the timeline in the bill.

The bill also ignores the fact that U.S. airlines do not currently match checked bags to passengers who actually board the plane. This is a time-consuming procedure that harried U.S. pilots generally oppose, but which is routine in Europe.

Despite its deficiencies, of course, the new aviation security bill represents a victory for all travelers who are concerned about safety. We may just have to be patient as we wait for lingering shortfalls to be addressed; airtight federal guidelines donít happen overnight, after all — or even in two months.