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Aviation security bill headed for Friday votes; baggage screeners would be federal employees

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Airport screeners would become federal employees, air marshals would be increased and cockpit doors would be fortified under an aviation security bill Congress plans to rush to passage to help rebuild Americans' confidence in flying.

After weeks of impasse, House and Senate leaders said Thursday they planned to vote on the legislation Friday, sending it to President Bush for his signature in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, one of the busiest flying times of the year.

The goal, said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who helped craft the compromise, is to give Americans ``peace of mind when they get on airplanes across the country, especially as we approach Thanksgiving.''

The votes will come a little more than two months after the hijacker attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

While travelers will see few immediate changes, the long-term effects of the bill are substantial. It will take permanent steps to fortify cockpit doors, increase air marshals on flights, upgrade screening technology and ensure that all checked baggage is inspected.

Airports will have 60 days to take whatever steps necessary to expand inspections. Within two years, they must inspect all checked baggage.

A new agency will be created within the Transportation Department to oversee all transportation security issues.

The biggest stumbling block to compromise had been a provision putting all screening operations under federal control. Airlines now contract out baggage screening to private security companies, which have come under fire for hiring low-paid, poorly motivated workers responsible for numerous and serious security breaches.

The original Senate bill put all 28,000 screeners on the federal payroll. House Republicans, resisting the creation of a new federal bureaucracy, pushed through a bill that put the government in control of screening operations but let the administration decide whether the screeners should be public servants.

Senate Democrats generally prevailed on this issue under the proposed compromise. Over a one-year period all screening operations and the workers will be federalized. For three years after the new law is enacted, all airports would have to remain under that federal system, except for five airports that volunteer for a pilot program experimenting with different security approaches.

After that three-year period, airports would have the right to opt out of the federal worker program, but would remain under federal supervision.

``The government is essentially taking away my business,'' said William Vassell, chairman and chief executive of Command Security Corp., a company based in LaGrangeville, N.Y., that provides some 600 screeners at airports in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

``The fact is, there are good companies that can do the job,'' he said. ``Raise the standards and fire the companies that don't meet them.''

Lott met separately Wednesday with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a fierce opponent of the new federal work force, to promote the compromise. On Thursday morning, 10 House and Senate negotiators met to give their endorsement to the concept.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a key sponsor of the House legislation, said he was generally satisfied because the Senate had accepted most of the House language. The new security agency in the Transportation Department, he said, would have ``unprecedented power for cutting through red tape and bureaucracy and putting security rules in place.''

He added that the new federal screeners would be denied the right to strike and would be subject to work rules where they could be more easily disciplined and fired than is the case with other civil servants.

The agreement would levy a $2.50 passenger fee to help pay for the added security, with a $5.00 maximum charge per trip.

The public clearly is concerned about airline safety.

A CBS News poll, taken this week just after the airliner crash in New York City, found that 56 percent say the government has not done enough to improve airport security and two-thirds say the airlines have not sufficiently tightened airport security, about a 15 percentage point increase in both categories since late October.
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