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Bill to tighten aviation security passes House and Senate
Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The most far-reaching aviation security bill in decades cleared Congress Friday and moved to the White House for President Bush's signature.
The compromise legislation, which adds new layers of protection at airports and on airplanes, passed the House by a 410-9 vote just hours after it was endorsed by the Senate on a voice vote.
"This is a historic moment," said the House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He called the package "the best security bill this nation has every had for the flying public."
Bush plans to sign the bill Monday. The completed bill comes just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, the heaviest traveling season of the year, and lawmakers were determined to send a message to Americans that it is safe to fly.
"As families prepare for the biggest travel day in the nation they can feel assured that airport security will be strengthened nationwide the very moment the president signs this landmark legislation into law," said Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.
The legislation, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would have a "major, major impact on the American people" who are reluctant to board an airliner because of fears that air travel is not safe.
Bush lauded the compromise plan forged after weeks of difficult negotiations, saying that by putting the federal government in charge of aviation security Congress was "making airline travel safer for the American people."
In addition to putting airport screening under federal control with a federal work force, the legislation moves toward inspection of all checked bags, requires fortified cockpit doors, increases the use of air marshals on flights and law enforcement in all areas of airports, and increases coordination between the Transportation Department and law enforcement agencies to cross-check passengers.
A new agency is created in the Transportation Department to oversee all transportation security matters. A $2.50 passenger fee per flight, with a maximum of $5 per trip, will be levied within 60 days to pay for the added security.
Some of the provisions, such as required use of explosives detection machines, could take months or years to put in place, but lawmakers said the psychological effects of enacting the legislation could be instant.
By Thanksgiving, travelers should start seeing more law enforcement officers at screening stations and more of their checked baggage undergoing inspections.
The Senate passed its bill by 100-0 on Oct. 11, but action in the House was delayed because some Republicans objected to provisions in the Senate bill that put all 28,000 airport screeners, now the employees of private security firms contracted by airlines, on the federal payroll. The House eventually passed legislation to put the federal government in control of screening operations but let the administration decide whether they should be private or public employees.
The compromise on the screening issue, crafted by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, requires that within a year all airport screening be under the supervision of the government with federal-U.S. citizen workers and that this system will be in effect for three years.
However, during that period five airports of differing sizes will be allowed to participate in pilot programs to test various screening approaches. After three years airports that abide by strict federal standards will be able to opt out of the federal worker program.
David Beaton, chief executive of Argenbright Security, which handles 40 percent of domestic airport security, said "this is clearly not the outcome we had hoped for, because we believed the real solution to aviation security is a strong public-private partnership."
But he said Argenbright, which has been hit with more than $1 million in fines for security lapses in recent years, would work with the Transportation Department during the transition period to ensure that security remained high.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who strongly opposed the Senate approach of using federal workers, praised the compromise, which he said adopted the stronger House language in many areas. He said that included steps to increase security for the tarmac, caterers, the perimeter and checked baggage.
The legislation requires airports to act within 60 days to maximize inspection of checked bags, with the target of inspecting all bags by the end of 2002.
Transportation Department officials told a Senate hearing Wednesday that less than 10 percent of checked luggage at American airports is screened for explosives.
------The bill, S.1447, can be found on the Net at http:thomas.loc.gov.