WASHINGTON — Key lawmakers reached agreement Thursday on an air travel security bill that would put federal workers in charge of screening passengers and baggage at the nation's airports, clearing the way for congressional passage of legislation that President Bush can sign before Thanksgiving.
The House and Senate are expected to approve the measure today. It calls for an array of new security features, including installing assault-resistant cockpit doors, hiring additional air marshals, screening all checked baggage and allowing properly trained pilots to carry firearms.
"Safety comes first," Bush said Thursday, announcing that he will sign the measure. "And when it comes to safety, we will set high standards and enforce them."
Under the agreement:
* Airport screening will come under a new Transportation Security Administration as soon as the legislation is signed. Within a year, all screeners would have to be federal employees.
* Three years after the federal government takes over airport security, airports can opt out of the program and contract with private security companies.
* Screening of checked bags must be increased within 60 days. By December 2002, all checked bags must go through explosive-detection machines.
* A hidden switch--and possibly video cameras--will be installed in cabins to alert pilots of trouble.
* A "trusted traveler" program, using high-tech devices such as retinal scanners, is authorized to expedite the screening of passengers who choose to participate in it. International flights must provide federal authorities with passenger lists before landing.
* A ticket surcharge--$2.50 for each leg of the flight up to a maximum of $5 each way--will be charged to passengers to fund the security enhancements, which officials estimate at $2.5 billion.
"This, I think, with the president's signature, will give Americans confidence that their government and their Congress and their president are doing everything possible to improve airport security as rapidly as possible," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The agreement ended a weeks-long stalemate that had grown increasingly tense in recent days, as lawmakers faced the possibility of returning home for the Thanksgiving recess without an aviation security bill more than two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The dispute, largely over whether an estimated 28,000 airport security screeners should be government or private employees, held up a bill that Bush and others have called vital to restoring the public's confidence in flying.
The compromise appears closer to the Senate bill, which called for federalizing the screening jobs. The House bill, favored by Bush, would have increased federal oversight of airport security but allowed the administration to decide whether the screeners should be government employees, private contractors or a mix.
"The Senate position was ultimately going to prevail because the politics demanded a significant change from the status quo," said Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute, a public policy center in Washington.
Lawmakers seemed to have little sympathy for the private security companies that handle screening, as security lapses have continued even after Sept. 11. In fact, the nation's largest security company, Argenbright, was barred Thursday from continuing to work in Massachusetts because of ongoing security lapses at Logan International Airport in Boston and the company's conviction on felony charges for failing to perform adequate background checks and hiring convicted felons.
Under the current screening system, private companies bid for airline contracts, then hire low-wage workers as screeners.
These screeners are eligible for the federal positions, but they must meet specific requirements, including proficiency in English and a high school diploma. They also must be U.S. citizens and must undergo a criminal background check. If, after three years, airports choose to renew their contracts with private contractors, those employees will have to meet federal standards and be supervised by federal workers.
In Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn called the bill a "tremendous step forward" toward making the skies safer.
Although the bill gives airports the option of using screeners hired by private companies in future years, Hahn said he expects that Los Angeles International Airport will stick with federal employees.
Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, criticized the requirement that screeners be U.S. citizens.
"Some screeners have worked [at LAX] for as long as 12 years, performing jobs for which they no longer qualify," said Garcia, noting that about 40% of the 600 unionized screeners at LAX are legal residents but not citizens. "They're devastated. From the beginning, they feel they have been scapegoated and it's not their fault."