Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, joined fellow committee members, Reps. Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, both D-Ore., outside the Capitol to describe the president's proposals as a good first step in restoring the public's confidence in commercial aviation.
Bush's plans include an expanded air marshal program, federal officers monitoring airport security and a possible callout of National Guard troops to patrol secure areas in and around terminals. The government would need about six months to implement the program at 420 passenger airports nationwide, under Federal Aviation Administration guidance.
"The president's plan, to use a football image ... is in the red zone, but they haven't crossed the goal line," Oberstar said. "That is security screeners at the nation's airports."
Annual employee turnover reaches 400 percent at some airports and contracted security companies are being fined for failing to check screeners' criminal records, Oberstar said. With these conditions, it is time for the executive branch to take over the job and turn those screeners into federal employees.
"This nation has been at war, the president said, since Sept. 11th. Airlines are the front line of that war," Oberstar said. "We wouldn't think of contracting out our army to protect us against an open foreign invasion; we shouldn't think of contracting out the responsibility of defending the internal United States against covert attacks the airlines endured."
Oberstar said he is troubled by talk of creating a non-profit corporation to handle screening duties, calling the idea "a step sideways at best." Raising airport screeners to the status of other federal inspectors, such as the Customs Service, would create a nationwide standard for the job, he said.
Legislation to do so would have to be crafted to ensure screeners would have some civil service protections, yet be subject to discipline or dismissal for poor performance, Oberstar said.
The proposals for screening personnel could be paid for on a permanent basis for about $2.50 per ticket, Oberstar said, and administration officials have not ruled out such an idea. Informal polling of Republican House members indicates strong support for the proposal, he added.
DeFazio said paying for increased security should not be viewed as an obstacle to getting the job done, dismissing earlier airline statements on how even small surcharges would drive away customers.
"Americans don't look at this as a tax," DeFazio said. "They look at it as a reasonable fee to ensure their safety and security."
Oberstar said Washington's Reagan National Airport should be reopened, and increasing security at airports serving National would be a way to get that done. The measures needed for this, such as matching baggage to passengers, would slow check-ins further, he said, but enough advanced detection equipment is available to keep delays reasonable. He has included requests for such equipment in his proposal, he said.
DeFazio said smaller airports should get federal funds to defray the costs of posting uniformed police in terminals. In fact, local law enforcement officers would be a better airport security choice than National Guard members who lack similar training, he said.
The congressmen took pains to point out they have been flying on commercial airlines and will continue to do so. "I have no doubt that when (DeFazio) and I go to Dulles this afternoon that we are safer on that airplane than in the car driving out," Blumenauer said.
One point that remains unclear is how the security measures would be applied to foreign airlines operating flights within the United States. Oberstar said legislative language on the issue has wavered between requiring "similar" and "identical" security measures. As for armed sky marshals, Oberstar said the matter would have to be discussed with the International Air Transport Association.
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