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US Congress Debates Air Travel Security - 2001-09-20


The Bush administration has promised to do more to secure the nation's air travel system, beyond those steps already taken since last week's airborne terrorist attacks. Members of Congress are pushing for swift action.

At a Senate hearing, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta tried to ease what one senator calls the American public's "blind, unreasonable fear about flying." The secretary says officials are working on a series of new security measures, which could take effect in the next few weeks. "And, while it may take time to re-create comfortable confidence in travel, let me assure this committee that we can, and we will, enjoy a transportation system that is safe, secure and stable," he said.

The new proposals include putting more armed guards aboard commercial airliners, and making the cockpits inaccessible to intruders. That idea drew support from Democratic Senator John Breaux, who said it might have stopped last Tuesday's hijackings. "I think that, clearly, we ought to secure the cockpit," he added. "I mean, whether it's with metal or steel or titanium I mean, we make tennis rackets and golf clubs out of titanium. Certainly, we can make a cockpit door out of something that can't be pried open with a fork."

It is not clear when the administration might take one particular action re-opening Washington's Reagan National Airport. The field remains closed because of its proximity to downtown Washington. This convenient location has long made Reagan National a favorite of lawmakers and government officials alike. Now, it is considered a security risk.

In an exchange with Senator Ernest Hollings, Secretary Mineta acknowledged the decision on resuming flights is out of his hands. "It is, right now, in the hands of the National Security Council and, specifically, the U.S. Secret Service," he said. "That's what I was afraid of," replied Mr. Hollings.

Some lawmakers pressed Mr. Mineta to move more quickly and aggressively to strengthen security. However, everyone seems to agree the transportation system has been thrust into a new world, with questions no one imagined just a few weeks ago.

Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana remarked on some of the restrictions already in place, which bar airline passengers from carrying knives or other sharp objects. "I guess, you know us [we] old farmers, we've always carried a pocketknife," he said. "Now, I'm going to have to keep a pocketknife in Montana and one here, because I ain't gonna [am not going to] get one in between."