Improving Airport Screening

The votes on airport security measures last week unfortunately took Congress back to its feisty, pre-Sept. 11 gridlocked partisanship. The House version of an airport security bill passed 286 to 139. The Senate version had previously passed 100 to 0. Now, the flying public is the loser, with the widely differing bills going to a conference committee to work out a compromise. That ought to happen soon.

The sticking point is whether to federalize airport security screeners. A majority of House Republicans, and the White House, want to toughen federal oversight of the screening, but with private companies still doing the work. The Senate bill would make screeners federal employees.

The argument for the Senate's approach has been strong. A shift to federal employees would elevate the importance of airport security - particularly the critical first-checkpoint work. Private firms haven't given this work the status it deserves. On average, screeners get $15,000 a year, and their turnover rate is 126 percent annually. The Senate bill would raise the salary to $35,000 and require 90 hours of training, plus an added 200 hours of training on the job.

The other side of the argument is that a combination of strict federal standards and private management of the work can succeed. Proponents of the House bill point to the efficacy of such an arrangement in Europe, and even in security-conscious Israel. There's also a reluctance to add 28,000 people to the federal payroll. While the cost of such a move may be worth it, restraints in managing these civil servants effectively might not be.

The prime goal is a system that will give peace of mind to the traveling public. A reasonable compromise is not out of reach, and it's reachable none too soon.

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