Magazine article National Defense

Route to Improved Security for Air Travel Gets Bumpy

Magazine article National Defense

Route to Improved Security for Air Travel Gets Bumpy

Article excerpt

Passengers, fasten your seat belts. An ambitious plan to strengthen security for the nation's aviation transportation system is encountering some turbulence.

A new agency has been created to do the job, and it has been given tight deadlines and billions of dollars to spend. Major defense companies are positioning themselves to grab a share of the funding.

After the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration quickly moved to toughen security in the airways. The Federal Aviation Administration began expanding the three-decade-old Federal Air marshals program, which places armed, undercover law-enforcement officers on board U.S. airliners. It provided $500 million in funding to modify aircraft to make it more difficult to break into cockpits.

More than 7,000 armed National Guard troops were deployed to augment existing security at the nation's 429 commercial airports. At press time, they were scheduled to be withdrawn by May 31.

After security lapses continued in the air and at terminals, Congress in November passed an Aviation and Security Act, establishing a major new agency-the Transportation Security Administration--and ordering it to protect all modes of transportation, air, land and sea, from assault by terrorists.

The legislation gave first priority to the commercial airlines system, which the terrorists had used in their assaults. It took the job of protecting that system away from private industry, which was criticized for lax hiring standards, low pay and poor training for its security personnel, and gave it to the TSA.

"For the first rime, airport security will become a direct federal responsibility, overseen by a new undersecretary of transportation for security," said President Bush in November, as he signed the measure into law. "The new security force will be well-trained, made up of U.S. citizens. If any of its members do nor perform, the new undersecretary will have full authority to discipline or remove them."

To fulfill the assignment, TSA officials said that the agency plans to hire a staff of perhaps 65,000 before the end of the year. That will make it "larger than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Border patrol combined," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, whose department includes the new organization.

TSA officials, citing security concerns, declined to reveal how many air marshals they plan to hire. But a spokesman said the agency is "recruiting actively" and has received "thousands of applications from around the country.

Still, with 26,000 flights a day, officials noted, the TSA won't be able to place an air marshal on every airliner. As an alternative, pressure is increasing for the agency to allow aircrews to protect themselves. United Airlines has began training its pilots to use stun guns to defend their cockpits. Transportation Department approval is required before the weapons can be deployed.

Stun guns, however, have limited range and power, critics warned. Two members of Congress--Alaska's Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Florida's John Mica, head of the Aviation Subcommittee--in April introduced legislation to allow commercial airline pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit and requiring the TSA to train them to use the weapons properly.

"Our pilots have requested the ability to defend themselves," said Mica. "They are our last line of defense and should have at least a fighting chance."

The law creating the TSA established a series of deadlines, which the agency has met so far. In December, it announced qualifications for federal baggage screeners, who must:

* Be U.S. citizens.

* Have a high school education or equivalent work experience.

* Be able to read, write and speak English.

* Pass tough, new security checkups, including criminal history investigations. …

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