Outside editorial: Airline safety and politics

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

The United States has taken a number of steps to improve airport security since Sept. 11. President Bush has used $3 billion in emergency money granted by Congress to deploy the National Guard and sky marshals. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working to toughen baggage regulations and screening of passengers. But the most crucial issue federalizing airport security workers is being threatened by House Republicans and the White House. Their reflexive opposition to expanding the size of government endangers desperately needed reforms.

It's no secret that the quality of airport screening is uneven. By contracting airport security out to the lowest bidder, the premium has been placed on cost. Many employees are badly trained and underpaid and have a shaky command of English.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has already asked a federal task force to oversee the country's biggest airport screening company, Argenbright Holdings. The government contends that Argenbright has violated FAA rules at a number of airports, among them the prohibition against hiring employees with criminal records. The Transportation Department's inspector general has shown that many airlines continue to fail to scan checked baggage for explosives.

This must stop. The Senate has passed by 100 to 0 a bill that would have all screeners be federal employees and impose a $2.50 surcharge on tickets to pay for new measures. The bill would put the Department of Justice in charge of some 28,000 workers and increase the numbers of law enforcement officials at airports. Under the bill, airport safety employees could be disciplined and fired more easily than other government employees.

The House Republicans and the White House are balking. They see federalization as a gift to unions. Not since the 1960s has the federal work force been increased by tens of thousands, and private security companies don't want to lose airport contracts. Led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House Republicans are working overtime to block the bill. Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, who has introduced his own bill, dismissed the Senate bill as "a piece of junk." Young would permit the president to decide whether to hire federal screeners or private employees and require tighter federal standards.

The White House agrees with Young, stating that it is eager to use private screeners "where it is safer and more effective." House Republicans are banking on the fact that if they tie up the Senate bill long enough, the White House will, as press spokesman Ari Fleischer has threatened, simply issue an executive order revising airport security policies. But any presidential order would lack funds since Congress controls the purse strings.

Direct federal supervision is the best way to ensure that rules and regulations are strictly and uniformly adhered to and would help restore public confidence in flying. Federalizing the force should include providing a career track, which would attract better employees and reduce turnover.

In the past several weeks, the people who make up government police, firefighters, postal workers and, yes, politicians have shown public service at its best: trained, dedicated, professional. When it comes to safety issues, Americans see government not as the problem but part of the solution. The White House surely does not want to be placed in the position of arguing for the continuation of cut-rate, rent-a-guard safety at the nation's airports.

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