- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2001

Now that the Senate has unanimously passed an aviation-security bill and the House has begun positioning to vote on its own version, a key sticking point should surely be opposition to federalizing 28,000 baggage screening workers.
The events of Sept. 11 have chillingly demonstrated that the United States is undoubtedly a target for terrorist attack, and it's therefore time to get serious about airport security, which has proven to be a national vulnerability. A brief look back at what has contributed to this vulnerability demonstrates that blame must be leveled at both the private sector and government. Therefore, the best approach seems to be a plan to maximize government's role to set standards and oversee enforcement while keeping in place corporate competition that encourages high quality service.
In 1996, Congress passed the Federal Aviation and Reauthorization Act, which mandated the that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set new regulations to improve the performance of airport screeners. But the FAA has failed to establish, much less begin to enforce, the new regulations Congress requested in 1996. The FAA said it had been waiting for new technology to come online that would allow the agency to monitor the efficacy of baggage screeners. But after a five-year lag, it appears that the FAA has been caught in bureaucratic paralysis. The agency said the new regulations were going to be finalized by the end of September, but in wake of the Sept. 11 destruction, those long-awaited rules have been shelved pending a decision by Congress regarding aviation regulation.
Unsurprisingly, behind the FAA inertia lies an excessively cozy relationship between the agency and the airline industry. According to a Public Citizen study, the airline industry spent $6.8 million in campaign contributions from 1999 to 2000 and $4.1 million from 1997 to 1998. And the Air Transport Association (ATA), the trade association of the top nine airlines, spent $62.9 million to lobby the federal government from 1997 through 2000. Much of that money went to employ former FAA and government employees. And the ATA has vigorously opposed recommendations for moderate efforts to bolster the performance of baggage screeners.
Now, given the government's bailout of airlines, it would behoove the industry to expeditiously and graciously implement the new regulations. Sadly, the bar of qualifications set for airport security has been set so low that it is largely regarded as a McJob comparable to the pay and conditions of fast-food employment. At a minimum, the FAA, or perhaps the Justice Department, should set vigorous personnel training and qualification requirements, mandatory screening of all checked baggage and 100 percent matching of checked bags with passengers. Furthermore, law enforcement and the private sector should be in charge of background checks of relevant airport and airline-security personnel.
After all, now that air-travel safety has become a central component of homeland security, the public expects the government to raise the bar on standards and strengthen oversight to make sure the airlines are doing their job. But the public doesn't expect the government to do the airlines' job for them.

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