Consumer trust hangs on aviation security bill

At last, US House to debate whether airport security screeners should be federal employees.

NEW YORK

A showdown in Congress today could determine how quickly Americans' trust is restored in the aviation system.

After weeks of delays, the House plans to debate an aviation security bill. Like the one passed by the Senate unanimously more than three weeks ago, the House version provides for more armed federal marshals, strengthening further the cockpit doors, and arming trained pilots.

But the key provision would make federal employees out of the 28,000 workers who screen passengers and their baggage. And there's the rub.

The Republican House leadership opposes creating a new bureaucracy. With the support of President Bush, they contend it would be better to put the federal government in charge, but leave the actual work to private contractors. And they've crafted an alternative bill that would give the president the option to do just that.

But supporters, including Senate Republicans, are just as resolute. For them, Sept. 11 made aviation security equivalent to national security, and they're not about to let that be contracted out to the lowest bidder. Plus, they drafted their bill with an eye toward their opponents. For instance, the Senate makes it easier to fire screeners compared to other civil servants.

While it's an ideological fight, far more is at stake. For the airlines, it's the confidence of their customers, without which recovering fully from Sept. 11 may be impossible.

"We could live with either [bill], as long as the government assumes full responsibility for airport security screening," says Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group.

Within days of the attacks, airlines called on the federal government to take over security at the airports. Polls show Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of a federal takeover.

But for the security screening industry, which bill passes is a matter of survival. If the version similar to the Senate bill is approved, a billion-dollar chunk of business will disappear. If the House leadership prevails, an additional $1 billion could be pumped into their coffers.

In the last three weeks, a frenzy of lobbying activity has been mostly directed to roughly a dozen moderate House Republicans favoring the Senate bill. Over the weekend, came the first indication that many of them remain unmoved. The president's spokesman said he probably would sign an aviation security bill that federalizes the workforce. But the House leadership is not throwing in the towel until the final vote.

The political back and forth is frustrating some aviation experts, who contend that Congress is focusing on the wrong issue. Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington, says that whether the screeners are federal workers or private employees that have to adhere to strict federal standards is "more of a red herring."

"The issues of how they perform will have a lot more to do with how the job is designed, than who employs them," he says. Like others familiar with the screening process, Professor Oster argues Congress should be focusing on increased training, better technology, and far more effective testing of the system.

Currently, screeners are trained to look for a list of objects identified by the Federal Aviation Association, including guns, bombs, and knives, according to Steve Elson. He's a former FAA official who used to test the security screeners, but quit in frustration several years ago. He says the system is so inflexible, that other lethal weapons easily passed through.

Screening has been tightened significantly since Sept. 11. It's not uncommon now to have tweezers and nail clippers with files confiscated. But almost daily, stories still circulate about dangerous things slipping through. Last week, one passenger realized he had a gun in his briefcase that screeners missed and immediately gave it to a flight attendant so that it could be locked up during the flight.

Supporters of the Senate bill believe that trained law enforcement officials would do a far superior job than private contractors screening and testing the system for problems. "Law enforcement is a basic function of government that should never be 'contracted out' to private security firms that provide 'rent-a-cops,' " says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association. "We don't 'contract out' the FBI, the CIA, or the Customs Service, so we shouldn't 'contract out' airline and airport security on which our lives and our economy depends."

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