Bush signs Aviation Security Act into law

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WASHINGTON -- Just as thousands of Americans prepared to travel over the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend, President Bush signed the Aviation Security Act into law, transferring the responsibility for passenger and baggage screening at airports from the airlines to the federal government.

The new law, which ushers in numerous security upgrades, creates a new Transportation Security Administration within the Transportation Department, to be headed by an undersecretary, yet to be named.

The law increases the use of federal marshals on commercial flights.

The act also calls for a system to match checked bags to passengers, to be developed within 60 days. It also requires baggage screening to the maximum extent possible, with full explosive-detection systems in place by end of 2002, by using best methods to screen bags.

To pay for these programs, the law establishes an airline ticket fee of $2.50 to $5 per one-way segment. In all, some $2.6 billion will be spent to improve airport security, including the estimated $700 million a year the airlines presently spend on airport security.

During a signing ceremony at Washington National Airport, President Bush said the law represents "A new commitment to security in the air."

The Security Act's most hotly debated provision calls for federal workers after one-year to replace the 28,000 employees now working for private airport security firms, under contract to the airlines.

The one-year transition period gives the federal government time "to work to keep them in place," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at a press conference after the signing. "We would like to see a seamless change during the transition period. We have to make sure that [security firms] and their employees don't walk off the scene," Mineta said.

In addition to drawing up new performance standards for the baggage screeners and for the "safeguarding of all areas of the airport," the DOT will require that the screeners be U.S. citizens and speak English fluently.

Also, under the security law, federal airport security workers will not be permitted to strike, Mineta said.

The security bill stalled for several weeks in Congress over whether airport security workers should be federal employees, as voted by the Senate, or merely supervised by the federal government, the approach that passed the House.

The two camps reached a compromise on Nov. 14 that allows airports to opt out of the federal program and institute their own security procedures after three years. However, Mineta said, he doubted whether many airports would.

"There is a possibility that some airport might do that, but I'm not sure there is an incentive for the airports to do that," Mineta said.

FAA rules ramp up current security standards

WASHINGTON -- The security provided by private firms at airports has fallen under intense scrutiny since Sept. 11.

Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration has adopted a series of tougher security standards that include prohibiting passengers from carrying certain items, such as pocketknives, on to planes.

It also has established a "zero tolerance" policy on airport security that includes swift action in the event of a security breach.

Atlanta's Hartsfield, for example, was virtually shut down on Nov. 16 after one man breached security by running down the up escalator at baggage claim, then getting on the airport train that runs between baggage claim and the concourses.

By essentially traveling backward through the system from baggage claim, an unsecured public area, the man could have bypassed security screening. Officials evacuated every concourse, re-screened everybody and stopped almost all arriving and departing flights for three hours, which forced flight delays and cancellations across the country.

Mineta said the zero tolerance policy would be maintained.

Andrew Compart contributed to this report.

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