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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Wide-Ranging Air Security Measures Become Law

Safety: President weighs plans to fortify other types of transit services. Screeners who are not citizens face job losses.

November 20, 2001|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the year's busiest travel period just days away, President Bush signed into law Monday a wide-ranging aviation security bill that he said "should give all Americans greater confidence when they fly."

The president also said he will seek additional security measures for other forms of travel. He did not offer specifics, but numerous proposals are pending in Congress to provide millions of dollars to increase security at bus and rail facilities and seaports. One measure would provide $1.8 billion for railroad tunnel improvements and the hiring of 840 more customs agents at seaports to inspect cargo.

A few of the new aviation law's provisions already have been implemented, such as fortified cockpit doors. But it will take the Department of Transportation a year or more to hire and train an estimated 28,000 employees to screen passengers and their luggage.

The measure calls for a panoply of other new security features, including the hiring of thousands of air marshals, the screening of all checked bags by explosive-detection machines by December 2002 and rigorous background checks on ground-support personnel.

The legislation's goal is to create a more visible and airtight security system at airports, from perimeters to various checkpoints inside terminals.

"For our airways, there is one supreme priority: safety," Bush said during the bill-signing ceremony at Reagan National Airport in suburban Virginia.

"Today, we take permanent and aggressive steps to improve the security of our airways," Bush said. "The events of September the 11th were a call to action."

The law's implementation is to be supervised by an as-yet unnamed undersecretary of Transportation.

A number of other measures have been taken since Sept. 11 to improve the safety of air travel, including National Guard patrols of airport checkpoints, a "zero-tolerance" government crackdown on security breaches and nighttime sweeps of aircraft on the ground by the airlines.

Bush said the new federal screeners will be well-trained--and "made up of U.S. citizens."

The law requires all the new screeners to be federal employees, and civil service rules require all such employees to be citizens.

Experts say that few of the screeners now working at airports are expected to meet the new citizenship standards for the job. Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center estimated that between 40% and 70% are noncitizens, meaning they would be automatically excluded from keeping their jobs.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about throwing noncitizens out of work, but they went along because of the bill's overall aim, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said Monday.

"It was wrong," he said. "But this was one where you needed everybody to sign on."

The bill leaves it to the Transportation Department to decide whether to grant the new screeners full civil service benefits, such as health and life insurance, retirement benefits and whistle-blower protections. But a labor leader served notice Monday that withholding the benefits would spark controversy.

"There is no plausible justification for denying federal employee screeners the rights and benefits afforded to other federal employees," said Bobby L. Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

*

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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