week House and Senate negotiators will try to work out the differences
between two competing airline-security bills. The Senate bill, passed
100 to 0, calls for the full federalization of 28,000 baggage screeners
at airports nationwide. The House bill, passed 286 to 139, provides
for private screeners working under heavy federal supervision. How
can the two be reconciled?
By the numbers,
probably. In the end, it might well be that a House/Senate conference
committee will come up with a numerical formula that will split
baggage screeners into a certain percentage federal versus a certain
percentage private. While that would be a classic political compromise
between competing interests, it would also, according to some experts,
be precisely the wrong way to increase airport security.
is some misunderstanding about the Republican position. The GOP
plan doesn't call for a totally private screening force; it calls,
rather, for private screeners working under intense federal supervision
and testing. That level of scrutiny will mean lots of new federal
workers the supervisors and testers. Republican aides estimate
that the "private" force will probably involve about 25
percent government employees.
plan, on the other hand, calls for a 100 percent government screening
force. To see the coming compromise, one just has to do a little
math. The House plan calls for 25 percent. The Senate plan calls
for 100 percent. The mid-point between those two numbers is 62.5
percent. Round that off by a few points and that's the agreement
that might emerge from conference. But would it be a good idea?
say 65 percent or 50 - 50 or whatever," says Isaac Yeffet,
former chief of security for the Israeli airline El Al, who favors
having the airlines and private security companies run security
under strict federal supervision. "What they are trying to
do is find a compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans.
This will be a big mistake." Yeffet believes that only a unified
system, in which airlines run security from start to finish under
stringent federal guidelines, can bring security in the United States
to a level comparable to that found in Europe.
A new element
in the argument is the case of a man who was arrested Saturday in
Chicago after trying to take seven knives and a can of pepper spray
on board a United Airlines jet. The man, Subash Bahadur Gurung,
nearly got through the entire security process; his weapons were
discovered when security officials hand-searched his carry-on bag
at the gate. Even though airline officials claimed the discovery
proved the system worked, a close look at the case shows an alarming
failure of security.
an account in the Chicago Tribune, Gurung "was identified
as a potential security risk when he first checked in based on the
fact that he walked up to a ticket counter and purchased a one-way
ticket with cash. But under Federal Aviation Administration and
airline procedures, the information was not shared with screeners
at the passenger checkpoint." Even after Gurung turned over
two knives to security workers at the metal-detector checkpoint,
his carry-on bags were still not checked. The other knives were
discovered only as he was about to board the plane.
company that handled the screening, Argenbright, has in the past
been found guilty of hiring screeners with criminal records. Already
this year, they have been discovered doing the same thing. And now
this. Yet transportation secretary Norman Mineta responded to the
Chicago incident by saying that the government would likely impose
"a substantial fine" on Argenbright an appallingly
mild response, in the eyes of some experts. "Why are they running
security at any airport?" asks Isaac Yeffet. "A year ago,
they were caught hiring people with criminal records. They paid
$1.6 million in fines and promised never to do it again. Now, they've
done it again. They should be punished by kicking them out of the
What is the
lesson of the Gurung case? Democrats argue that it underscores the
need for a fully federalized baggage-screening force. But that would
mean two separate security agencies, the airline and the government,
would handle the security, and might not communicate with each other
any more effectively than United and Argenbright did in Chicago.
Instead, Yeffet and others believe it would be better if the airline
were forced to fully integrate the screening staff into its security
system, following procedures set out by federal supervisors. Under
that system, Gurung who was a suspicious character from the
moment he walked into the airport would have been caught
before he even got to the metal detectors. And if he did get that
far, the screeners, who would be part of the airline-security team,
would have known in advance that he should receive special scrutiny.
Rather than an argument for a fully federalized force, the Chicago
incident is an argument for a unified force, run by the airlines,
under tight, do-or-die supervision of the federal government.
But that is
not likely to happen under the what-percentage-can-you-live-with
bargaining that will take place on Capitol Hill. Yes, a fully federalized
screening force would be an improvement over what we have today.
But a private, airline-run force operating under tight and
tightly enforced federal guidelines would be better. A mix
of the two, while it might satisfy the political requirements of
each side, might well make things worse.