Congressional lawmakers this week reached a compromise agreement on the air-travel safety legislation that had been rattling around the Hill since the September 11 terrorist attacks. While the final legislation has many good points including strengthened cockpit doors to prevent armed or violent passengers from disturbing the flight crew, armed sky marshals on flights and much more thorough screening of both checked and carry-on baggage it also calls for the federalization of the baggage-screening work force, an idea this page has opposed since it was first suggested. Adding almost 30,000 bureaucrats to the federal payroll is no guarantee of heightened security or efficiency. And it’s important to note that federal baggage screeners will not be law-enforcement personnel, even though proponents of the idea have argued that baggage screening is a “law-enforcement function.” Rather, they will be ordinary time-clock-punching workers, very much like the current baggage screeners, albeit perhaps with better training and supervision. But as this page and others have argued, better training and supervision could have been accomplished without the establishment of another small army of federal workers.
Nonetheless, President Bush will sign the compromise legislation that includes the federalization provision. Within a year, all U.S. airports would have the federal baggage screeners in place. The estimated cost to air travelers will be about $2.50 per passenger, per flight with the overall cost of the new air-travel security measures estimated to be in the $2.5 billion to $2.6 billion range.
But there is some good news, perhaps even an eventual “out” that deserves mention. Privatization will be allowed a limited return after one year, when five of the nation’s airports will be permitted the option of returning to private baggage screeners. Three years later, all U.S. airports will be given the choice either to remain with the federal workers or to go with private baggage screeners. In effect, Congress has federalized the baggage screeners for a limited period of time. Another good point is the provision in the compromise legislation headed for the president’s desk that will make it possible to easily fire any federal baggage screeners who prove to be incompetent. This addresses one of the major criticisms of federalization, which critics argued would have made it exceedingly difficult to get rid of unionized government workers, even when they clearly deserve to be nixed. The authority to hire and fire the federal baggage-screeners will be Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s, too not the Federal Aviation Administration’s.
Mr. Bush praised the compromise legislation late yesterday, thanking House and Senate negotiators for “reaching an agreement that puts the federal government in charge of aviation security, making airline travel safer for the American people.” We should also be thankful for a reasonable approach that ought to satisfy concerns about air-travel security without permanently adding to the bloat of federal government.