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America Under Attack: Transportation Secretary Holds Press Conference in Regards to Air Traffic Situation

Aired September 13, 2001 - 10:37   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: I just now see Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is now at the podium. We want to hear what he has to say right now.

NORM MINETA, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: First of all, let me apologize for holding you all up.

As President Bush said Tuesday's acts of cowardice were a deliberate and direct act on the security of the American people and on freedom-loving people across the globe. In order to restore our security to the fullest extent possible, we exercised the necessary precautions while assessing our nation's transportation systems. Now I am pleased to announce some good news for travelers, for our economy and for the restoration of America's freedom of mobility.

Effective 11:00 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, today, air space system will reopen to commercial aviation. At this moment, the FAA reports that we have airports starting to reopen across the country. Now, this decision was made after a series of meetings throughout the day, yesterday and late into Wednesday night with the White House and other Cabinet officials, Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey and her great team, aviation industry leaders, as well as intelligence and law enforcement representatives.

I must caution everyone that a system as diverse and complex as ours cannot be brought up instantly and so we will be reopening airports and airlines will be resuming their flights as they meet the new security measures that we are now imposing. Additional airports will be opened only after they meet the new stringent security measures.

Anyone planning on flying today or not even today, but henceforth, should check with their airlines regarding the level of service and flight schedules and especially be able to allow plenty of time to deal with the heightened security precautions.

MINETA: As I stated yesterday, safety is always of paramount importance and in these extraordinary times, we will be vigilant. Therefore, I have ordered a variety of security measures to be instituted at our nation's airports upon reopening to improve the security of our national aviation system. A thorough search and security check of all airports and airplanes will take place before passengers are allowed to board any aircraft.

We have discontinued off-airport check-in and curbside check-in at the airport. All passengers will be required to go to the ticket counters to check-in. We must reserve boarding areas for passengers only and only ticketed passengers will be allowed to proceed past airport screeners, and all vehicles near airport terminals will be monitored more closely.

We experienced an unprecedented assault on our commercial aviation system, and in times such as these we will use all available resources to ensure the safety of our travelers. Agents from the Department of Justice and from the Department of Treasury will be deployed to airports across the country.

MINETA: The added presence of these officers will augment our existing heightened security procedures, serving as a visible reminder of our strong commitment to protect the safety of the American people and the traveling public.

Again, I strongly urge all passengers to allow plenty of time to deal with the heightened security procedures, and also to exercise patience with airport and airline employees and security personnel.

Finally, let me say this: From this day forward, we are operating with tightened security. In the weeks and months ahead, we will do all that we can to ensure that the safety of the American aviation system is in place. We will not allow this enemy to win the war by restricting our freedom of mobility.

I wish, again, to express my hope that all Americans will heed the president's call to keep the victims and their families in our prayers and our thoughts as we go about the task of recovering and rebuilding.

I will now take questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) is the situation now with general aviation, with business aviation and the cargo carriers?

MINETA: First of all, the cargo carriers are not being differentiated from the commercial passenger airliners. There are certain requirements being put on them in terms of security and safety measures, but they are back in the air again, effective 11:00 a.m.

MINETA: On general aviation, I will have a little more on that subject later this day. But right now, this is an announcement only as it relates to the commercial and cargo airlines.

QUESTION: As of 11:00 a.m., you can't go out and hop in your Cessna and take off?

MINETA: No, sir.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, some safety experts are saying that the United States is opening their airports too quickly, that some of the security measures are a quick fix in low level security, and that we should be really looking at a long-term possibility of even federalizing security, arming pilots, training flight attendants with some kind of anti-terrorists combat.

Is there any thoughts or any feelings or have there been discussions on adding more security into the airlines and airports?

MINETA: Well, I think that the part of the question and the implication is, the short-term, long-term. What we are trying to do right now is restore to normalcy, as well as we can, the ability to travel.

The president had indicated on Tuesday that he wanted to return life in the United States as fast to what we knew before 8:50 a.m. on Tuesday. And so, what we are trying to do is to get back into normalcy by allowing commercial airline travel. Yesterday, we said we would allow those continuation flights or flights that were diverted to continue on to their final location.

There are other things that have to be done, and one of the ones that is a very high priority is the whole issue of the screening of passengers. Do we federalize it? If we federalize it, who's going to be doing the work? Are they civil service employees? Or, are we just going to be federalizing in the sense that the FAA/DOT is now going to take over the contract? And then, are we going to go around and asking for bids from the lowest contractor? So what have we netted then? All we've done is to move it from low-bid contractor that's awarded by an airline at a specific airport to FAA/DOT.

MINETA: You know, that doesn't improve security. So, yes, you're right; that whole issue of do we nationalize or federalize passenger screening, that is a longer term issue that we are looking at, as we speak.

Those other things that you mentioned about other training requirements, those are also issues that are being looked at in the longer term. So we're trying to do things on a two-phase basis, if I were to characterize it; one, to try to get up as soon as we can, and then the other; two, deal with some of these other issues on a longer term basis.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, in both of those phases, will those Justice and Treasury officials who are being deployed around the country, will they board and fly aircraft? Will they be the new marshals?

MINETA: In the case of -- for instance, we'll be using uniformed personnel more at airports to be able to, again, increase safety and security. For on-board, we do need trained personnel on how to deal with the use of weapons in an aluminum cylinder that's flying through the air. And it would take several weeks to train people who, let's say, we might get from INS agents or Border Patrol or others, in terms of being competent to being federal air marshals. On the other hand, we are asking for expeditious treatment and action by the Department of Defense to give us some Delta Force folks.

MINETA: They are already trained on high-risk situations and it wouldn't take that much more training to put the Delta Forces on the airplanes. So we're hoping to augment federal air marshals with Delta Forces.

The other issue about whether we take a -- I don't know, let's say, a Border Patrol agent and train them for being on an airplane -- that will be, I guess, another part of this phase. But right now for the immediacy, we're going to keep them in terms of their use at airports.

QUESTION: There was a rumbling yesterday that you might bar mail and freight shipments cargo on passenger planes. Is there any consideration being given to that and can you go into more detail on these new security measures for the cargo airlines?

MINETA: As of right now, in terms of belly cargo, mail is not being allowed.

QUESTION: What about other types of freight?

MINETA: And as far as cargo airlines, let's see, let me get a reminder from -- Monte, can you help me out on this? Monte, why don't you come and help me out on cargo and mail on cargo airlines.

MONTE BELGER, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

BELGER: I'm Monte Belger with FAA. First on cargo airlines, as the secretary said earlier, they will be permitted to operate today just as passenger aircraft will. There are some security procedures that we are asking them to take. I'm not going to talk specifically about those procedures, as we always don't. But there are some things that the cargo carriers will a have to do.

MINETA: As far as mail and cargo on passenger aircraft, as the secretary said, we're going to temporarily suspend the carriage of mail on passenger aircraft. There are a series of security things that will not visible to the passenger or to the shipper that we're asking the passenger carriers to take and we think those are adequate.

QUESTION: So they'll know the cargo perhaps (OFF-MIKE)

(UNKNOWN): Yes, yes.

MINETA: But no cargo in the hold of a passenger plane.

QUESTION: Can you repeat that, please? No cargo in the hold of a passenger plane?

MINETA: Temporarily we have suspended the carriage...

QUESTION: Mail and cargo. MINETA: ... mail and cargo in passenger aircraft.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, how do you respond to those who say that America's airports have never been safe and that people are poorly trained and that is what has allowed something like this to happen?

MINETA: Well, I'd have to, you know, differ with that generalized statement about "never have been safe." If you want to talk about screening passengers, that has always been an issue with me personally.

As chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, we held hearings back in the early '80s about minimum-wage employees of screening companies. We have right now pending a rule that allows the FAA to undertake increased scrutiny and increased requirements on passenger...

Is somebody calling me?

(UNKNOWN): It's an open radio. We apologize.

MINETA: ... on increased requirements on screening passengers by these company employees. You know, when I go through an airport and I see an employee standing there who's about to -- and they've got their shirt like this, I know they just got hired, because that shirt is too long for them. But they just got hired. They've haven't been trained very well.

Well, somehow we've got to get the standards, if the screening is a problem -- and I think it is a problem -- we've got to get those standards up, to mean federalizing earlier, as the question was asked, federalizing is not necessarily the answer, unless someone really means that it's going to be federal civil service employees doing this.

MINETA: I'm not sure Congress is willing to accept that kind of additional cost to be borne by the taxpayers. On the other hand, if we take it on our own and then we charge it back to the airlines, given the shaky condition of airlines right now financially, I'm not sure that that's a healthy thing for economy. But I would take issue with someone saying that our airports have never been safe. If you want to talk about screening, I'd be willing to deal with that issue.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, it's been said many times that the sheer numbers of people who are traveling now are stressing the aviation system from top to bottom. Is it time -- I understand what you're saying about federalizing -- but is it time for the federal government, with policy or through legislation, to now step in and ease the burden on the U.S. aviation system?

MINETA: Well, when you're talking about ease of burden, you mean of the fact that we had 700 million passengers fly in the year 2000 and in the year 2010 we're going to have a billion? Are you saying that we ought not to allow that many people to be flying? See, I think, in terms our marketplace economy, I don't want to suppress on the demand side. I'm trying to make sure that we have enough on the infrastructure airport-airline side to be able to meet the demands of the traveling public.

To me, the greatest of this country is not only democracy, but the freedoms that we have, that we enjoy. And as I said yesterday, one of those freedoms that we cherish the most is the freedom of movement. And we want to be able to move freely, but we also want to be able to move efficiently and safely. So rather than depress on the demand side, I'd rather have the infrastructure to be able to deal with that.

Now, as we increase the infrastructure, I want to make sure that it is done on a safe and secure basis, because President Bush's priority is, without a doubt, safety and security. So to that extent, I fully endorse, feel that that's the way we ought to be doing it, and I would not want to be suppressing the demand side for fear of the numbers who are flying.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, as you receive reports on what happened Tuesday, is there anything that you've seen that you wish the people of this department would have done differently?

MINETA: You know, I suppose those kinds of what-ifs and could- haves and should-haves -- I really don't want to get into that.

We've got 47,000 employees in the FAA, who, on Tuesday, in terms of -- especially the air traffic control element of it -- just performed superbly.

You know, when that first plane went down at 8:50 and then 17 minutes later the second one went, and then 23 minutes later the third one we lost, one is an accident, two is a trend, three is a program. And when that third airplane went down, is when I said to the FAA, "Shut it down. Bring every airplane in the air to the ground." And at that point, we had over 2,100 airplanes in the air. And in less than two hours, we brought everyone of those airplanes -- the air traffic control system, air traffic controllers -- brought those airplanes down safely in some airport.

And so, to me, are there things that could have been done differently? Sure, I suppose. There are things I wish I had done differently on Tuesday, maybe, or Monday or last month. Those I'd rather not get into. I really want to be able to work as we had been on Tuesday, devising the new security and safety programs for airports, for airlines to be able to get back into the air.

To me, I think the airlines, the flight deck crews, the air traffic controllers performed superbly on Tuesday, and I don't want to take anything away from what they did on Tuesday. And to me, to have them bring 2,100 planes safely at some airport across this great country of ours, to me, was a great feat, and I don't want to detract from anything that they did on Tuesday.

And yet, you're right, we're looking at those things as to what happened. And are there lessons to be learned? I'm quite sure we will find lessons that we should learn from, in terms of what happened on Tuesday, and we will be applying those.

Thank you very, very much.

HARRIS: We've been listening to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta make the announcement that things in the skies over America will be getting back to normal sometime fairly soon. He announced that the airports and airlines will begin the process of going back to regular service. He did announce, though, a number of restrictions that passengers should expect and now have endure, number one being off-airport and curbside check in will no longer be allowed; the boarding areas at most -- at all airports will only be accessible for ticketed passengers only; and all vehicles that are near terminals are going to be monitored more closely. And he's also advising that passengers allow for plenty of extra time now for these added security measures. And he is also asking for extra patience, which is no doubt going to be needed.

We'll continue to monitor that and bring you any other new developments that come out on that angle.

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