The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 whether the result of deliberate sabotage or simple mechanical failure adds to the sense of urgency that Congress come to an agreement on the air-travel safety legislation it has been debating for weeks since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The Senate bill, which would federalize all baggage screeners and thereby create a veritable army of newly christened bureaucrats some 28,000 strong, is at loggerheads with the reasonable alternative favored by a majority of House Republicans and President Bush, which would give the president the option of going with either private contractors or federal workers. Opponents of the Senate version argue persuasively that federalization of the baggage-screening workforce is no guarantee of improved security and may even make matters worse by creating a large new bureaucracy with a sense of entitlement that is not subject to external pressures.
In an effort to reach a compromise before the Thanksgiving break, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a backer of the original Senate legislation, on Tuesday proposed a mixed approach that would put federal baggage screeners at 31 of the nation’s busiest airports, while allowing private contractors to handle the job at smaller airports. While well-intentioned, the Hutchison proposal raises more questions than it answers. For example, it would effectively entail a two-stage security system that would require passengers arriving from smaller regional airports making connecting flights at larger airports to go through the baggage-screening process all over again. The often short time intervals between connecting flights at crowded airports make it hard to imagine how a second screening of checked and carry-on baggage could be accomplished without routinely fouling up travel schedules.
The most sensible approach one that achieves the goal of heightened security without crippling U.S. air travel with bureaucracy, delays and red tape would be to establish high standards for baggage screening and rigidly enforce those standards, perhaps with federal oversight. But federalizing the baggage screeners themselves is a sure recipe for an expensive boondoggle that will provide no guarantee of improved airline security. Anyone who believes in the efficiency of the government vs. that of the private sector need only go to the department of motor vehicles to renew his driver’s license. Federalized baggage screeners would be no more efficient.