Congress passes aviation security bill, sends it to president

Saturday, November 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's signature on major aviation security legislation passed by Congress may reassure holiday travelers that the government is taking substantial steps to protect them from would-be assailants. Immediate signs of change, however, will be minimal.

The House and Senate, after weeks of negotiations, voted overwhelmingly Friday to approve a bill to put airport screening under federal controls.

The measure also moves toward 100 percent inspection of checked bags and make sure that a potential hijacker who gets into a plane will be stopped by air marshals in the cabin and reinforced cockpit doors.

Bush plans to sign the measure as early as Monday. Administration officials and lawmakers say they want to send a strong signal before the holiday traveling season to Americans now reluctant to fly because of safety concerns.

``Travelers will have the peace of mind that every step is being taken to improve their safety,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

``This is not only a security measure, but more than anything else an airline stimulus bill,'' Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., added. He said it will put people back in planes and help the aviation industry overcome the financial crisis it has faced since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Among the more immediate effects of the new law _ passed by 410-9 in the House and by voice in the Senate _ would be the presence of more law enforcement people at airports; it requires at least one law enforcement officer at every screening post at major airports.

Also, more checked bags will be inspected. Airports have 60 days to initiate plans to increase checked bag screening, with a deadline of the end of 2002 for subjecting all checked bags to explosives detection screening.

Even before the bill passed, airlines had moved to fortify cockpit doors and the government had placed air marshals on some flights, but the new law will expedite both moves.

Other changes will take more time. The federal government has a year to fully take over screening operations, now run by private security firms contracted by airlines, and put all 28,000 screeners on the federal payroll.

Current screeners can apply for the new federal jobs, which should pay double the current $15,000 salaries of many screeners, but they must be U.S. citizens and meet higher employment standards.

For three years after the law goes into effect all airports must be under the federal system, except for five airports of different sizes that can apply for pilot programs trying different screening approaches. After that period, airports can opt out of the federal system, although Hollings said that after an airport brings in federal workers, ``I couldn't see it going back.''

The ``opt out'' provision was a concession to House Republicans who objected to creating a new federal bureaucracy and wanted to give the president more flexibility in deciding whether security personnel should be civil servants or privately employed.

The bill also incorporated a House provision that puts all transportation security under a new Transportation Department agency. It levies a $2.50 security fee, to go into effect within 60 days, each time a passenger boards a plane, with a $5 maximum for a one-way trip.

The bill extends liability protections for some affected by the Sept. 11 hijackings and suicidal attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, including the buildings' owners, engine and aircraft manufacturers and airports. There are no added protections for airport security companies.