WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., applauded passage of far-reaching aviation security legislation just in time for the peak holiday travel season.
The measure includes an amendment, authored by Lieberman and Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that greatly expands the use of technology to improve the security of airports, airplanes, and air passengers.
“Flying will be safer than it’s ever been before and it will be as safe as it possibly can be because of this agreement,” Lieberman said. “But this bill does more than protect the flying public. Ultimately, the long-term recovery of air commerce – and the economy as a whole – will require nothing less than ironclad confidence in the safety of our airports and air carriers. This bill is the first step toward achieving that goal.”
The legislation, approved by Congress Friday, requires all passenger and baggage screeners to be federal employees within one year. They would have to be U.S. citizens, undergo criminal background checks, and would not have the right to strike. Within 60 days, bags would have to be checked for explosives, manually searched, or matched to a passenger onboard the plane, and by 2003, all checked bags would have to be screened by explosives detection machines.
The Governmental Affairs Committee held two hearings, on September 25 and November 14, that underscored the need to reform current aviation security practices. Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead, for example, testified that less than 10 percent of checked baggage nationwide is being screened for explosives, that most explosive detection machines are not in continual use, and that screeners are undertrained, underpaid and overworked.
“For too long, and with too many warnings, we lowered our guard and allowed weaknesses to persist in our aviation security that created the vulnerabilities the terrorists took advantage of with dreadful consequences on September 11,” Lieberman said.
The Lieberman-Durbin amendment, adopted by the full Senate and included in the House-Senate compromise, expands the deployment and use of security technology, including baggage screening machines, that already exist. It sets aside $50 million in each of the next five years for research and development of new technologies to improve aviation safety and $20 million for research and development of long-term security improvements, including biometrics, advanced weapons detection, and improving systems for sharing information among law enforcement entities.
The amendment further requires improving the security of airport areas barred to the public. “This bill is an extraordinary step forward in assuring the protection and well-being of the American people and it sets a standard for what we must do regarding our other critical infrastructure,” Lieberman said. “We have learned the lessons of September 11.”