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House GOP offers air security alternative

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Republicans on the House Transportation Committee have unveiled their version of legislation to boost airline security, calling for a public-private partnership on baggage and passenger screeners.

Led by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the committee chairman, and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, the group laid out its plan, based in large part on arrangements in place at European airports.

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"As everybody in the United States flies sometimes, we deserve to have the best security system in place," Young said. "(The committee) held meetings with security officials from Britain, Belgium and other nations. They were horrified by what they saw happen here on Sept. 11 and they want to help us."

Those meetings, as well as testimony from many parts of the aviation industry, helped form the bill, avoiding what Young termed the "knee-jerk" approach of other legislation. The bill has elements of other proposals, including more armed sky marshals and strengthened cockpit doors, but Young pointed out two key differences.

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Most importantly, the bill gives the president a choice of contracting with private companies to provide screeners or creating additional federal positions to man the checkpoints. House Democratic and Senate bills would add about 28,000 federal employees to do the screening, Mica's office said.

Young said his bill's first option, which retains objective, direct government control over screeners, is the way to go. "We give the president flexibility, because we know the security issues in Tel Aviv aren't necessarily the same as at (Chicago's) O'Hare Airport," Young said.

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., a co-sponsor of the bill, said the screening program model draws not only from European airport operations, but also experiences of the U.S. Marshals Service in providing security at federal courthouses.

The second difference between the Young/Mica bill and other proposals involves overall control of the screeners.

"We take away from the airlines the current (security) responsibility given them by the FAA," Mica said.

Instead of giving the Department of Justice the responsibility of overseeing screening activites, as the Senate's aviation security bill does, the House GOP proposal gives the Department of Transportation a new agency, Young said. This "Transportation Security Administration" would monitor the measures taken for all modes of travel, he said.

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Screeners would also have to pass much higher requirements and standards, including U.S. citizenship, Young said. The reward for clearing that higher bar would be better pay and benefits. Mica estimated the best-qualified screeners could make about $32,000 a year.

Other differences between the Young/Mica bill and existing legislation include:

-- Imposing a single $2.50 fee per trip, as opposed to a $2.50 fee per trip segment in the Senate bill;

-- Requiring law enforcement personnel at every checkpoint into an airport, not just on the airport grounds;

-- Creating an oversight board of law enforcement and homeland security agencies to advise the TSA undersecretary, and;

-- Erasing any distinction between the security required at large versus small airports.

Young said the Transportation Committee won't take up the bill; it will go instead directly to the House Rules Committee and then to floor debate. Mica said Bush administration officials have voiced strong support for the bill.

If attempts to reconcile House and Senate versions bog down, Young said the president would probably implement many of the bill's provisions unilaterally.

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