Critics skeptical of Senate-mandated security measures in airports

Posted 10:00 p.m. Oct. 22

By Jason J. Safdi?
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

In a rare demonstration of bipartisan solidarity, the Senate Oct. 11 unanimously passed legislation strengthening the safety of the country’s air transport system.

It would require strengthened cockpit doors, put armed federal marshals on most flights and allow pilots to arm themselves with firearms under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) drafted the legislation which is now under consideration in the House of Representatives.

The security improvements would be funded by a $2.50-per flight passenger charge and make 28,000 airport baggage screeners federal employees.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said a first priority is screening every bag that is loaded onto an airplane.

“The goal for all of us must be the 100 percent screening of every checked bag,” Garvey said. “I can tell you that every (explosives screening) machine that is produced will be deployed immediately.”

The machines cost $1 million and can process up to 350 bags an hour. Yet even with the machines in place, The Washington Post found that they are rarely used.

The Post observed one such machine at LaGuardia Airport in New York screening only 17 bags in one hour. Last week at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the newspaper observed only five passengers’ bags screened out of a line of 17.

Despite what many are calling spotty security since Sept. 11, Garvey said other improvements are being made.

“Critical to securing the cockpit is an expanded Federal Air Marshals program,” she said. “In the days after Sept. 11, we dramatically expanded this program.”

Most airlines are completing retrofits of their cockpit doors this month.

“The major airlines have modified the cockpit doors on nearly 50 percent of their combined fleet,” she said.

United Airlines and American Airlines, the nation’s two largest air carriers, said they are moving as quickly as possible to enhance their fleet.

Garvey said United Airlines completed its cockpit enhancements on Oct. 14 and American Airlines continues to strengthen between 50 to 60 cockpits per day.

She also pushed for technological improvements in screening the backgrounds of airport and airline personnel who have access to secure areas.

The results of a joint review conducted by the FAA and the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General found that Argenbright Security, Inc., the top provider at Washington Dulles International Airport and other airports hired screeners who had prior criminal records.

A spot check of Argenbright’s screeners at Dulles on Oct. 13 found that seven out of 20 failed their skills tests, a requirement to comply with federal standards.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service detained seven Argenbright employees at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport earlier this month for illegally working in the United States.

The Department of Transportation said audits of Argenbright and other security firms would continue. The government is now doing background checks at 20 of the nation’s largest airports.

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