Friday, November 16, 2001

House and Senate leaders reached an agreement yesterday on an aviation security bill that would make all airport screeners federal employees initially but later give the airports the option of using private security guards to inspect passengers and baggage.

The final agreement is expected to be voted on by both the House and Senate today.

The compromise agreement breaks a deadlock that pitted the Senate’s desire for a federal work force against the House’s preference for private security contractors at airports.

The Bush administration favors using private security guards with stronger federal oversight and standards. But President Bush said in a statement last night that he planned to sign the legislation.

He added, “Today’s agreement also gives the federal government the flexibility to ensure a safe transition to a new aviation security system and will ultimately offer local authorities an option to employ the highest quality work force, public or private.”

The compromise agreement is most similar to the bill approved unanimously by the Senate Oct. 11.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters he was “extremely pleased” with the deal.

“Our skies and our airports are going to be a lot safer, beginning tomorrow,” he said.

Senate sources said the breakthrough came on Wednesday when Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, proposed to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat and a key negotiator, a one-year transition period to federalize airport employees. After Mr. Hollings expressed interest in the idea, Mr. Lott also took the proposal to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who said he would approve of the provision if the White House did.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, was one of the conference committee members who held out against private contractors.

“We are finally going to have what the public is looking for, complete federal control of passenger safety at airports,” said Kelly Benander, spokeswoman for Mr. Kerry.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III preferred the House version. “I’ve heard the governor say he has been for private screeners under some federal supervision,” said Reed Boatright, spokesman for Mr. Gilmore.

The Virginia Department of Transportation manages Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport is managed by the Maryland Aviation Administration.

“The lieutenant governor and I strongly support the decision to federalize baggage screening at major airports across the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Airport,” Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening said in a statement. “Recent experiences with private contractors at BWI, and across the nation, reinforced the urgent need for this action.”

United Airlines, which had two of its planes hijacked during the September 11 attack, announced yesterday it plans to install stun guns in the cockpits of all its planes and begin self-defense training for flight attendants.

A provision in the congressional compromise would require all checked baggage to be inspected by bomb-detection machines by 2003. Currently, less than 10 percent of checked baggage is inspected by the machines.

The compromise was proposed by Mr. Hollings, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

It would order the Transportation Department to take over management of airport screening nationally within 60 days. Afterward, the Transportation Department would have one year to train airport screeners and replace all the private contractors with federal employees.

Many of the nation’s 28,000 airport screeners are expected to retain their jobs but become federal employees instead of working for private firms.

For the next two years, all but five of the nation’s 419 commercial airports would use only federal employees as screeners. The other five would be airports that volunteer for experiments with different security strategies.

“The government is essentially taking away my business,” said William Vassell, chief executive of Command Security Corp., a New York-based company that employs 600 screeners at airports in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. “The fact is, there are good companies that can do the job.”

Three years after the bill is enacted, airports could apply to the Transportation Department to return to using private security firms for screening. However, the Transportation Department still would set standards and manage the screeners.

The compromise would set up a new agency within the Transportation Department to oversee all transportation security issues.

Other provisions of the bill would deny federalized screeners the right to strike and make it easier to discipline and fire them, compared with other federal employees. The agreement also would impose a $2.50 fee on passenger tickets to pay for added security, up to a maximum of $5 per trip.

•Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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