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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Legislators Seek Air-Security Bill by Thanksgiving

Congress: As lawmakers push to reach agreement on status of screeners, experts say it could be years before new safety systems are in place.

November 07, 2001|RICHARD SIMON and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As House and Senate negotiators attempt to work out their considerable differences on an air-travel security bill, lawmakers Tuesday declared their hope of getting a bill to President Bush by Thanksgiving.

But whether the passenger and baggage screeners by law end up being federal or private employees, experts say, it will take many months--perhaps years--before the new security system can be put in place.

The government will have to create a bureaucracy to oversee aviation security. It must train and conduct background checks on tens of thousands of screeners. And it must buy new scanning machines.

All that could take a year to 18 months, said Gerald Kauvar, a Rand Corp. policy analyst who during the 1990s was staff director of a White House commission on aviation security.

"No matter which [bill] Congress passes, there are other measures that are going to have to be taken in the interim," Kauvar said. "Presumably, they are not going to grandfather in the existing work force."

The House bill would increase federal oversight of airport security but let the administration choose between government-employed screeners or contract workers. The Senate bill would put 28,000 federal workers in charge of screening at the nation's biggest airports.

Publicly, airline officials claim that a 90-day timeline laid out in the House legislation for a newly established Transportation Security Agency--which would operate within the Transportation Department--to assume responsibility for aviation security is realistic. But privately, they doubt it can be met.

"Traditionally, the [Federal Aviation Administration] has not moved quickly on anything," said one industry official who asked not to be identified. "Nobody is expecting this to take years, but there is a ramp-up period. Physically, it's just going to take time to get new people on board."

John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Assn., which lobbied for the Senate bill, added: "It's not going to be a quick turnaround."

The Senate version would make the Justice Department responsible for aviation security.

Even if it will take some time for the new measures to be put in place, those on both sides of the debate say it is important for Congress to act quickly.

"You could see some changes immediately," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday, insisting that authorities at least could begin conducting background checks to resolve the problem of felons working in screening jobs. "That would only take a matter of hours or minutes. 'Hey, have you ever been convicted, Ralph?' "

McCain said passage of the Senate bill would have the immediate effect of increasing the public's comfort level about flying.

Bush on Tuesday urged congressional leaders during a White House meeting to send him a bill soon. His plea came just days after airport screeners had failed to discover knives and a stun gun in carry-on luggage that had passed through security checkpoints at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

"We all are determined to see that we get a good bill on the president's desk very shortly," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said after the meeting.

An analysis of the Senate bill by the Congressional Budget Office showed that recruiting, training and deploying a work force of about 28,000 employees with direct responsibility for passenger and baggage security would be "challenging and require a number of years to be fully operational."

"I just don't see it [the Senate bill] getting off the ground for years," concurred Jack Driscoll, former head of Los Angeles International Airport who was pushing for the House bill for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2,000 privately employed screeners.

Citing his experience at LAX, Driscoll noted that for every 100 applicants for airport law enforcement positions, only four made it through the battery of tests and were eventually hired. If that ratio holds nationwide, "It would take a pool of 450,000 applicants to fill all the current screener positions with federal law enforcement employees," Driscoll said.

An aide to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, argued that the House bill could bring results immediately.

"The day this is signed by the president, the secretary of transportation is going to take over all aviation security immediately. . . . He'll have people on the ground at all these airports," the aide said.

Under the House bill, however, it will take time to set new, higher standards and to conduct background checks, train and test the thousands of screeners. Even if the screeners remain private employees, the administration is expected to have to hire and train federal employees to serve as supervisors.

The Bush administration favors the House version of the bill.

Steps already have been taken to increase security at airports and on planes. Some airlines have moved to fortify cockpit doors. And more air marshals are flying on planes.

The FAA on Tuesday also announced it will hire extra security personnel for six-month stints to help ensure airport checkpoints are being operated properly. An official said the agency expects to hire about 200 people.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, said Tuesday he is optimistic that a compromise can be reached soon--even as he said he was unwilling to budge on turning over the screening to government workers.

"I don't think the White House can arrive at Thanksgiving without an aviation security bill," he said.

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