Outside editorial: Why delay air travel safety?

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

An ideological battle that has kept air travel from becoming as safe as possible is set to land Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here's the question delaying the arrival of a tougher security plan: If the government takes over work now contracted by airports and airlines to private security companies, should all 28,000 passenger and baggage screeners become federal workers?

On Oct. 11, after two weeks of political gamesmanship, U.S. senators unanimously said yes. They voted 100-0 to federalize the workforce, reinforce cockpit doors, and hire more air marshals.

House Republicans, who tout reducing the size of government, blanched. Of course they would support tighter federal oversight but airport security should remain in the private sector. House leadership initially tried to duck the issue by calling on President Bush to dictate new procedures through executive order. He wisely said no.

Then House leaders, including Texas Republicans Richard Armey and Tom DeLay, accused Democrats of using federalization as a ploy to expand their party's membership. The federalization proposal is far from new. In 1973, when passenger screening began, the Air Line Pilots Association said the best protection against hijackings was a government security agency. Federalizing air-travel security surfaced again in 1988 after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

A recent Washington Post poll showed 82 percent of Americans supported a full federal takeover of air-travel security. Pilots, flight attendants and industry executives also back it with good reason. It's a national security issue on par with the FBI or border patrol.

During his radio address Saturday, the president signaled support for a Republican bill sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, which would retain private contractors under tougher federal standards. Mr. Bush said keeping the screeners as private employees, rather than making them civil servants, would make it easier to discipline or fire incompetent workers.

That issue threatened to hold up the Senate bill, but was resolved when Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., put the jobs under the Justice Department, with strict thresholds for hiring and ease in firing.

The quickest path to safer air travel is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, and Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., that mirrors the Senate bill. While the president does not favor it, he says he won't veto it. The House should pass it and end this divisive partisan debate.

Seven weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans shouldn't still be wondering who or what might slip through airport security.

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