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U.S. aviation system to reopen today; officials promise tighter security

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation's aviation system prepared to reopen Thursday after an unprecedented shutdown prompted by a terrorist attack, but government officials cautioned travelers to expect slower operations and tighter security.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said commercial and private planes would be allowed to fly starting at 11 a.m. EDT. He urged passengers to check with airlines on flight schedules and available service, and allow ample time to deal with new security procedures.

``There will be some inconveniences, but safety will be the first element of our system to be restored,'' Mineta said.

The secretary's statement was released by the White House.

Mineta made his decision after a series of meetings Wednesday with White House aides, Cabinet officials, the Federal Aviation Administration, industry and law enforcement. He called the decision ``good news for travelers, for the airlines and for our economy.''

Mineta said airports and flights would be resumed on a case-by-case basis, and only after stringent security measures are in place. ``This phased approach will assure the highest level of security, which remains our primary goal,'' he said.

Most of the nation's air fleet was grounded Tuesday morning following horrific hijackings of four passenger jets by terrorists who then flew them directly into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and into the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands of people are presumed dead.

Even as the FAA imposed new restrictions on passengers, airlines and airports, some members of Congress were pointing to security lapses.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., a member of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, called the need to improve airport security quite apparent. Mineta proposed a series of tough measures, including a ban on curbside check-ins and an increased police presence in airports.

On Wednesday, Mineta announced that planes that were diverted on Tuesday could take off and land at their originally scheduled locations. Some planes began leaving later Wednesday, carrying only those passengers who had begun the journey. Other planes could leave as soon as their destination airports had finished improving security procedures.

At that time, in addition to permitting stranded passengers to get to their original destinations, Mineta said airlines could also move empty planes from airport to airport to get ready for normal operations.

Mineta said it was decided to indefinitely postpone full restoration of service after aviation officials discussed security problems with the FBI and intelligence agencies.

The Justice Department said one option when service resumes is to put law enforcement personnel on planes, a practice that has been used in the past. Regardless of whether that step is taken, U.S. marshals, the U.S. Customs Service and the Border Patrol definitely will be part of increased security on the ground at airports, said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the transportation subcommittee, said he told FAA Administrator Jane Garvey he wanted assurances the skies were safe before general air traffic resumed.

Garvey, meanwhile, was to brief the Massachusetts congressional delegation Thursday on security at Logan Airport in Boston, where two of the hijacked planes began their deadly flights.

The FAA ordered security increased to its highest level since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The new orders ban curbside check-ins, allow only passengers to go through security checkpoints, and require airports to bring in uniformed security officers.

``The idea that our national security should depend on minimum wage screeners is absolutely ludicrous,'' said Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Hudson lost his daughter in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.

Mineta said the Transportation Department had proposed regulations to give the agency more control over screening.

``We are looking at the whole issue of how to improve the ability to screen passengers as they come into the airport,'' he said.

The Air Transport Association said the FAA should consider taking over the screening process rather than leaving it to the airlines. ``When we are dealing with terrorism, there are functions and responsibilities that are beyond our abilities and responsibilities,'' the airlines' trade group said in a statement.

Congress' General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department's inspector general both found problems with the security screeners, and Rogers called the screeners the ``weakest link in our security.''
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