The U.S. House and Senate are to vote Friday on a compromise bill to boost aviation safety following the September 11 hijack attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The vote comes after negotiators from both chambers reached a deal Thursday to turn airport security over to the government.
Congressional negotiators broke a weeks-long deadlock over what the status of baggage inspectors should be.
The Democratic-led Senate had passed a bill that would federalize those inspectors. The Republican-led House had approved a measure keeping baggage screeners in the private sector but under federal oversight.
Under the deal, baggage screeners over a one-year period would become federal employees in a security system supervised by the Department of Transportation. The system would stay in place for another two years, with airports given the option of going back to having private firms doing baggage screening.
Both sides appeared happy with the compromise. Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said "we are going to see whether the private sector can best deliver this under federal supervision or whether you have to have federal screeners. But we will have that opportunity to take a look at this and make that determination. I think that is in the best interest of all Americans who want to fly."
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle agreed, and noted the bill would offer visible signs of stepped up security to reassure airline passengers. "I think there are three things the public will see over a period of time," he said. "Obviously we cannot do it tomorrow in most cases. But the first thing they will see is a much more significant presence in all airports with a high level, high quality inspection staff. Secondly you are going to see a lot more air marshalls. This bill authorizes a lot more air marshalls even though you probably cannot see them, you will know they are there. Third you are going to see reinforced doors on airplanes in virtually every instance. That too ought to give a great deal of confidence to the flying public."
The deal was reached after a series of security breaches at airports, in which the private baggage inspectors allowed weapons to pass through airport gates, and in some cases, on to planes.
Lawmakers hope to have the bill on President Bush's desk for his signature before the Thanksgiving Day holiday next Thurday. Transporation Secretary Norm Mineta expressed the administration's satisfaction with the compromise. "Thanks to this legislation," he said, "Americans who travel to celebrate with their loved ones will do so in greater security."
The cost of the security enhancements is expected to be passed on to the consumer, with airlines adding a small fee to the price of a ticket.