New law to overhaul airline security, but not in time for holiday travel

Tuesday, November 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Airline passengers traveling this Thanksgiving week won't see most of the increased security promised in legislation signed by President Bush.

But a year from now, they will be screened for weapons by well-trained, better-paid federal workers. Passengers will also be footing the bill.

Some of the improvements _ more air marshals on flights and reinforced cockpit doors _ are already under way. The Federal Aviation Administration is hiring hundreds of temporary employees to assist the security screeners who now check passengers and carryon baggage at airports.

More passengers are singled out for extra checks, based on a computerized profile. Airlines are comparing reservations with FBI watch lists of potential terrorists. The FAA is conducting criminal background checks of all 750,000 employees who can enter secured areas of airports.

Other improvements in the bill that Bush signed Monday will take a while longer.

``We had a very deficient security system,'' said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group. ``We are not going to fix it overnight.''

Even so, federal officials hoped that the new law, passed in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would encourage Americans to return to the skies. The AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association, forecast that 4.6 million people would fly this week, a 27 percent decline from last year's 6.3 million.

In October, the number of airline passengers dropped 23 percent from 2000 levels, according to the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major airlines.

A Bureau of Transportation Statistics survey released Tuesday found that about 36 million U.S. adults planned to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, down from 58 million last year.

Under the new law, within 60 days passengers will start paying more for their tickets, as airlines assess a $2.50-per-flight tax to pay for security improvements. Travelers who change planes would pay $2.50 for each segment, up to a maximum of $5.

Besides paying the extra fee, passengers are to have their checked baggage screened by X-ray machines, hand searches, bomb-sniffing dogs or other means. By the end of 2002, the bill requires all checked baggage to be screened by explosive detection machines.

There will be at least one law enforcement officer at every checkpoint at major airports, and federal managers at screening stations.

Perhaps the most significant improvement is a year away. At that time, all of the 28,000 passenger screening positions will be filled by federal employees, with higher salaries and better training than the current minimum-wage workers who now staff airport checkpoints. Unlike the current screeners, all of the new employees must be U.S. citizens.

After three years, any airport can switch to a private system.

``I don't think, with the track record of contracting out and 5,000 dead, any airports will want to opt out,'' said the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.

The new federal screeners will find salaries more than doubled to $30,000 a year, plus benefits, said Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

``You'll have a much higher quality pool of applications and the public should be able to expect a much higher level of competence,'' Hudson said.

``There are a lot of unemployed people right now in the aviation industry, and ex-military people, even ex-police officers, who wouldn't mind taking a job with this kind of federal pay and benefits.''