National Guard soldiers around the United States are being deployed at the nation's commercial airports to boost security and deter possible terrorism. In Florida soldiers will be on duty at airports by late in the week.
National Guardsmen in Florida have begun two days of intensive training ahead of Friday's anticipated deployment. Brigadier General Jimmy Watson told a news conference in Miami that more than 100 armed soldiers will be sent to Miami International Airport. "The purpose of this mission is to increase security at the airports, to be a visible deterrent to terrorism, and to increase public confidence in our airline transportation system," he said. "We are not here to replace the current security personnel or systems; we are here to reinforce them."
President Bush wants the federal government to assume responsibility for screening passengers and luggage at America's airports. Currently, those duties are performed by private contractors hired by the airlines.
General Watson says National Guardsmen will be deployed for approximately four to six months or as long as it takes for the government to create a new federalized airport security apparatus. "These soldiers will have the following rolls at the airports: reinforce the existing checkpoint operation and structure, actively provide assistance, screeners and security supervisors, and provide a highly visible armed presence and deterrent to anyone who wishes to do us harm," said General Watson.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas says he welcomes the National Guard deployment, saying the nation's confidence in air travel must be restored. Miami's large tourist sector has been hard-hit by the precipitous decline in air travel since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. South Florida has lost an estimated one-quarter billion dollars in tourist revenue in the last three weeks, causing thousands of job losses.
Mayor Penelas says the trend must be reversed, and the National Guard can help." 96 percent of the people who visit our community as tourists come on a plane," he said. "And if people feel insecure in our airports, if they feel insecure on our planes, then we will not have tourists coming to our community. If planes are half-full, that means our airports, restaurants and hotels are half-empty."
Miami International Airport, which usually bustles with activity, has been virtually deserted for three weeks. One passenger, Steve Higbee, sits alone in a long row of chairs waiting to board a flight to Pittsburgh. He says he has noticed heightened airport security. "We've gone, I think, three times through the X-ray," he said. "If anyone were going to try anything, I think this is a good way to deter it."
Mr. Higbee says deploying the National Guard is a good idea. "They are protecting me, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "And I have heard that from other people, too. It takes time, it's cumbersome [to go through so much security], but it is necessary right now."
U.S. airports continue to operate at a heightened state of alert. National Guard commanders say they are confident their soldiers will significantly boost airport security. But they admit that, just as no one anticipated the September 11 attacks, anticipating and preventing any further terrorist incidents could prove to be a challenging task.