A congressional panel neared a deal on a compromise proposal on aviation security yesterday.
The plan would use federal employees as screeners at the nation’s 31 largest airports and give smaller airports the option of using private security guards.
The proposal, by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, is intended to break the deadlock between the House and Senate over the legislation.
The Senate voted unanimously to use a work force of federal employees at all but rural airports. The House voted to allow private security companies to screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports, which is the current system. Both bills would require higher standards for training and performance.
The Bush administration favors the Republican-backed House bill, although the president has hinted he would not veto the Senate version.
The proposal yesterday also would raise standards for private security companies at the smaller airports and impose heavy penalties for substandard performance.
Among the penalties, firms with three or more “significant security violations” in two years would be barred from contracts to provide airport security. The significant security violations include hiring people with criminal records.
“Argenbright would not be eligible under my proposal,” Mrs. Hutchison said.
Argenbright Security Inc. is the nation’s largest private company providing airport security, employing 15,000 U.S. security personnel. They include 6,000 employees who screen passengers and baggage at 42 airports.
On Friday, the company began service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
At Boston’s Logan International Airport yesterday, Massachusetts police forced hundreds of Delta Air Lines passengers from the gate area after they learned that an Argenbright security guard had left her checkpoint unattended for up to four minutes.
Among Argenbright’s customers are United Airlines and American Airlines, both of which had airplanes hijacked during the September 11 attacks after the terrorists passed through checkpoints manned by Argenbright personnel. Last month, a federal judge ordered Argenbright to do digital fingerprint background checks on all of its employees. A year ago, the company was fined $1.2 million for employing convicted criminals as screeners.
The compromise also would require that passengers changing airplanes at 137 hub airports, along with their carry-on baggage, be screened a second time before they board the connecting flight.
Mrs. Hutchison said the second screening would be intended “just as a backup.”
“I’m just trying to make it so airtight that terrorists can’t get around anything we do,” she said.
Several senators questioned whether the compromise proposal would create two classes of aviation security, one for large airports and another for smaller airports.
“You’re asking the American people to submit to a different standard,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.
Mr. Kerry favors using federal employees to do airport screening nationwide.
“There are some things only the government can do,” he said. He cited as an example coordinating anti-terrorism efforts among the CIA, FBI and Defense Department.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, warned that possible lower standards with the private security firms could negate the quality of the entire aviation security system.
“I think terrorists will find the weakest link very quickly,” he said.
Mrs. Hutchison said standards could be kept high to create a “seamless” system with close monitoring by a federal overseer from the Transportation Department or the Justice Department.
The House-Senate conference committee still has not decided whether the Transportation Department or the Justice Department should manage the security system. The committee is scheduled to resume negotiations today and complete a final bill by tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations gave the Federal Aviation Administration poor grades yesterday for improving security since the attacks two months ago.
The Transportation Department last month recommended changes in airline security procedures, training and technology that were supposed to be completed in 30 days. At a downtown press conference yesterday, the pilots association said that “four of seven of those items have not been completed.”
Uncompleted recommendations include anti-hijacking training, new security procedures and plans for alternative emergency warnings to air-traffic controllers during a hijacking attempt, the coalition said.