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Airport security debate focuses on government's role

Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, believes federal government oversight, not complete control, is the most efficient way to handle airport security.  

From Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The debate rages inside the halls of Congress and across the country over how best to quickly plug holes in airport security.

Even the lawmakers in Washington can't agree on whether the federal government should assume complete control of airport security screeners. The House approved an aviation security measure late Thursday that calls for the government to oversee airport security but does not make airport screeners federal employees. Earlier, the Senate passed by a 100-to-0 vote a measure that would federalize the entire airport security work force at the nation's larger airports.

President George W. Bush supports the Republican-backed House measure and has urged the House and Senate to work together to send him a bill he can sign.

Bush already has overwhelming bipartisan support for proposals to station federal marshals on planes, to further secure cockpits and for a greater law enforcement presence at airports.

Security experts say that is a nice start, but more can be done to boost the confidence of air travelers. Among their suggestions:

  • Ending the practice of having the commercial airlines responsible for security.

  • Upgrading security screeners to a career-path job by significantly improving salary and training.

  • Minimizing carry-on bags allowed onboard, thus easing some of the pressure on screeners. The Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules about carry-ons in early October. (Full story)

  • Forcing flight schedules to spread out and reduce the peak period, which again lessens the strain on airport security.

  • Positioning cameras in the cabin so pilots can better react to a potential disturbance.

  • Fingerprinting ground workers and conducting criminal background checks.

  • Using face-scanning technology to match faces of passengers or crowds in the airport to databases of terrorists.

  • Better connecting airport security to the nation's intelligence network.

All of these proposals are under consideration in some form, but the degree to which they will be tweaked -- and the ultimate cost of ratcheting up airport security -- remains unknown.

So far, President Bush has used $3 billion in emergency money appropriated by Congress to dispatch the National Guard to airports and to post more marshals on planes.

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The Senate bill that would turn all airport workers who screen passengers and luggage into federal employees includes a $2.50 surcharge on future airline tickets. The White House, however, opposes such a large expansion of the federal work force and has threatened to impose new aviation security measures by executive order.

All agree that security needs to be vastly improved. The debate, now, centers on who should be in charge.

At present, airport security firms contract to provide workers directly to the airlines. Lawmakers almost certainly will do away with this system because they believe screeners are ill-trained and underpaid.

Three scenarios are being debated to improve airport security: one would create a system of federal government oversight, another would create a new federal agency, and a third approach would place airport security under existing federal law enforcement control.

The federal oversight system

Rather than the Senate plan, which would turn screeners into federal workers, the White House proposes instead to put the federal government in charge of training and supervising screeners. Under the proposal favored by Bush, the government would serve in an oversight capacity.

Advocates of such a plan say that oversight would be more effective than complete government control.

"I'm concerned in having the federal government take over something for which they already have been responsible," said Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Aviation subcommittee.

"The Federal Aviation Administration has been directed by Congress in two laws -- one passed in 1996 and another as recently as 2000 -- to come up with standards and certification of screeners. And still to this day it doesn't have it in place. Why would I turn over 27,000 employees to an agency that did not have in place any rules to prohibit box cutters?"

Some of the hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks used box cutters to take over the airliners they later crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mica proposes an approach similar to what the White House supports.

"So we're looking at taking (security responsibility) away from the airlines and making it a federal function, but having someone in charge who can make some immediate rules as to how this is conducted," Mica said. "Not just screening. You have ramp access. You have technicians and mechanics that can get to the plane. You have baggage people, caterers."

Mica said a federalized system could simply involve a quasi-public corporation or private security contractors whom the government dictates to -- spelling out the qualifications of screeners, standards, salary and the reports that contractors must generate to an oversight body. So, the outside group would no longer answer to the airlines or the FAA but to a new party, such as the new Office of Homeland Security.

A new federal agency

Others in Congress, however, favor a direct government takeover of airport security. They argue that government oversight is needed to ensure uniform training standards.

"Put in a domestic equivalent of the Customs Service, trained officers, trained and skilled with a career path, that understand what they are doing," said Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia.

"And also tie it in to a national intelligence network that understands what is going on in terms of terrorists, hijackers and so forth."

Federal law enforcement control

Billie Vincent, former FAA security chief, goes so far as to suggest that passenger screening at the nation's airports should come under the FBI's jurisdiction.

"It is a law enforcement activity, you have to recognize that," Vincent said. "Put it into the Justice Department and recruit people at a decent salary. But let's also set up a training academy or several training academies around the country, where we train these people in a curriculum that includes law enforcement responsibility.

"Then, set up a career progression, so they have a way into other law enforcement work that has a higher grade, more responsibilities. Let's give them a 20-year retirement package, so we can attract law enforcement experience from other agencies."

Misplaced attention to airline security, critics say

Experts maintain another flaw in the U.S. system is that it has never paid adequate attention to the issue of the people who board airplanes, nor to formulating a line of defense on the airplane. Instead, the focus has largely been on keeping weapons and bombs off airplanes.

But how far should security steps go now? Should the industry put an end to pre-assigned seating and curbside checking of bags? Most experts believe not.

On the issue of whether pilots should be armed, there is no consensus that it would have thwarted the September 11 hijackings.

"The bottom line is if you have highly trained and sophisticated people pulling off something like this, there is very little that you can do," said Rudy Kapustin, former chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. "These terrorists act by surprise."

Editor's note: This story was written prior to the November 19 signing by President Bush of the aviation security bill.



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