Civil service no secure fix

Outside editorial

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:

Airport security legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate last week but faces adamant opposition from House Republicans who oppose putting federal employees in charge of airport security. A number of senators argue that the sight of federal employees would reassure a jittery flying public and that security per se is a government function. For their part, some House Republicans rail against making Big Government bigger still.

Yet rather than appearances or ideology the key question ought to be: What works best? For that the United States ought to look at most of Europe and Israel, where aviation relies on an effective security system that is in fact a hybrid. The work is handled by private contractors operating under the close supervision of governments.

To federalize airport security would require the hiring of 28,000 employees, the biggest one-time boom in government hiring since the salad days of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Labor unions, hungry these days to get any new members wherever they can find them, endorse federalization. No surprise there.

It would be a surprise, though, if a new army of federalistas, covered by civil service - a setup in which being disciplined, transferred or fired are considered unnatural acts - offered much reassurance to the flying public. Think "civil service" and images of an efficient, agile, highly motivated workforce just don't pop to mind.

The Senate bill proposes a special force that would be part of civil service but whose members could be more easily fired or disciplined - regardless of civil service regulations - and who would be prohibited from striking. Such a special outfit, offering all the bureaucratic drawbacks of federal employment but none of the protections, would be unique indeed - and so would anyone who signs up for it.

The existing system of private security airport screeners worked - to a point. So far as we know, none of the Sept. 11 hijackers carried guns or other prohibited weapons onto planes and there hadn't been any hijackings in well over a decade. But security aboard the aircraft was woefully lacking, particularly in the cockpits, which left crews unprotected. This federal package is needed primarily because some of its provisions would bolster security on airplanes. Upgrading airport screeners and tightening government oversight of them also is a good idea, but not at the expense of expanding the federal bureaucracy.

Now the government must define what kind of procedures, training and personnel it wants the nation's airports and airlines to install - and be willing to pay what it costs to set up high-quality systems comparable to those at European and Israeli air terminals. Regular federal inspections are also a must. The issue of costs seems to have been settled by a proposed $2.50 fee on each airline ticket to help pay starting salaries of approximately $37,000 for airport screeners.

There have been suggestions that President Bush go along with the federalization of security services just to get the legislation approved. He shouldn't. Such a compromise would fatten the government payroll permanently - did we mention the part about never getting fired? - without a comparable payback in enhanced airport security.

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