European Affairs

An Urgent Role for Congress in Airline Security     Print Email
James L. Oberstar

On December 21, 1988, we thought the world of aviation security had been changed forever as a terrorist bomb tore apart Pan American World Airways §ight 103, a Boeing 747, killing all 259 passengers and crew, and 11 residents of the small town of Lockerbie in Scotland.

This terrorist act propelled the families of the victims on a tireless mission to prevent future such tragedies, culminating in the creation of the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, on which I served as a Commissioner.


History - astonishingly - repeated itself with the tragic events of September 11, the day four aircraft were simultaneously hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Aviation security once again was changed forever. Aviation transportation around the globe now faces unprecedented challenges; nations must re-evaluate the state of security for both domestic and international commercial air service.

The Congress was called upon to act swiftly. Congress was asked to aid the airlines so that this cornerstone industry, which represents American mobility and economic growth, could recover in the shortest possible order.

The nation's passenger airlines suffered tremendous damage on September 11. Every day they were grounded, the air carriers had no revenues to offset the $350 million in costs incurred daily whether §ights are operating or not. When air travel resumed, passengers were and remain somewhat reluctant to §y - though load factors do appear to be slowly improving.

On the days immediately following resumed §ight, revenues were no more than half the pre-attack level - which meant daily losses of $100 million or more. Such losses could not be sustained for long in an industry that was already losing money in a recession, that is highly leveraged, and that had found it difficult to borrow money even before the tragedy.

Thus, Congress immediately had to deal with these financial problems, which were compounded by liability questions. American Airlines and United Airlines faced possible liability for thousands of victims in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which would be well in excess of the airlines' insurance coverage.

Other carriers faced similar liability exposure if terrorists acted again. Unless some limits were placed on their liability, American and United might be forced into bankruptcy. Moreover, because of the prospective liability, all airlines might be unable to purchase affordable insurance, or to receive new loans, or lines of credit.

The obvious solution was to limit the airlines' liability in the event of a terrorist attack. This, however, would be only a partial solution. If we limited airline liability, we needed to make other arrangements to protect victims' families.

On September 21, after a week of intense discussion and debate, Congress passed legislation to deal with these problems. The Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act (H.R. 2926), provides $5 billion to the airlines to compensate them for their lost revenue resulting from the September 11 attack, and a $10 billion loan guarantee program to help the airlines get through the next year.

On liability, the bill limits American's and United's responsibilities to their insurance coverage, and for the next 180 days, in the event of a terrorist attack, the airlines' responsibility for damage on the ground is limited to $100 million per occurrence. If claims exceed these limits, the government pledges to pay the balance. The government will also help pay increased insurance costs attributable to the events of September 11.

I regret that we did not have the time to reach consensus on two important issues - enhanced security and assistance to furloughed airline employees. Over 100,000 of the 1.2 million airline employees have been furloughed since September 11. I believe that we must help these employees get through the layoff period and, if necessary, find new careers.

We also need to move forward without delay on enhanced airline security. If we address the dire financial circumstances of the industry without elevating security, air travelers will have little confidence that they can §y safely. If passengers don't §ock back to the skies, the airlines' load factors will not improve, and they will continue to sustain substantial financial losses.

Over the last ten years, we have made great strides in enhancing aviation security. In the Commission's 1990 Report, we found the nation's civilian aviation security system to be seriously §awed, and we made 64 recommendations to correct those §aws, which culminated in the passage of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990.

Six years later, spurred by initial concerns that a terrorist act was responsible for the TWA 800 explosion, President Bill Clinton organized another commission, the 1996 White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, which made 31 recommendations for enhancing aviation security.

Again, Congress acted swiftly and, in the 1996 FAA Reauthorization Act, included measures to intensify security. In 2000, we passed the Airport Security Improvement Act of 2000, which required FAA to certify screeners and expanded the pool of security employees that must undergo a criminal history record check.

The air travel universe to be protected is enormous and growing - 666 million passenger enplanements annually, expected to grow to over 1 billion by 2010, with several hundred million pieces of baggage to screen. Likewise, the magnitude of the threat is growing and changing.

Between 1961 and 1972, there were over 134 domestic hijackings. In 1972, in response to this criminal activity, FAA ordered metal detector searches of passengers and x-rays of carry-on bags. As we installed metal detectors to find guns, the threat changed to bombs aboard aircraft.

Following Pan Am 103, and based on the Commission's recommendations, significant steps have been taken to invest and deploy new techniques and equipment to detect items that pose an aviation security threat. Today, there is a new threat - terrorists living among us learning the ins and outs of our security systems.

I have long expressed my concern about reports that, although the FAA is deploying needed equipment, there is no long-term strategy for integrating the security equipment into a seamless security system - seamless communication between the intelligence community and the security force.

Ten years ago, the Commission recommended that we become more aggressive in our intelligence gathering, evaluation, and dissemination. Its report recommended "greater emphasis within the intelligence community on developing a specific union whose principle function will be long-term strategic thinking and planning on terrorism. The objective is to be better able to anticipate future terrorist strategies and tactics, rather than simply to react to incidents as they occur."

This is the most challenging aspect of our aviation security network. It is difficult to penetrate these highly secretive organizations that operate on a war-like footing. Counter-terrorism also requires renewed higher-level coordination through Interpol, with our European and other allies, and with other nations such as Russia and China, as the Pan Am Commission recommended 11 years ago. The skills of terrorists have stepped up several levels since the Commission's 1990 report. We must ensure that our counter-intelligence rises to meet that threat.

We must also put in place a federal screening force that is trained to respond to security threats. There is now strong interest in a proposal I have been advocating for many years: that we should give the federal government the responsibility for screening airline passengers and their baggage.

Until now, there has never been the political will to pay the higher costs that would be needed to have screening conducted by an experienced, professional workforce. As a result, high turnover, low wages, and lack of adequate training hinder security screener performance.

I believe that the best way to ensure an experienced, professional workforce would be to give federal government employees responsibility for screening, and to cover the costs through a passenger fee of $2.00 to $3.00. Some conservatives oppose creating a federal workforce to conduct screening. That is an ideological argument that has no place in the security of our nation's airports and airspace.

The most basic responsibility of our government is to protect our citizens against acts of war that threaten their safety and security. Since September 11, this nation has been at war. President George W. Bush, himself, has said so. In this war, our nation's airports and airlines are the front line.

Just as we wouldn't think of contracting out for an army to protect us against an open foreign invasion, we shouldn't think of contracting out the responsibility for defending our fellow citizens against the covert attacks, which our airlines endured in the war that began on September 11.

With federal employees conducting the screening, we can greatly improve the quality of the screening process. The government can pay salaries commensurate with the law enforcement responsibilities of screening, which involves not only the ability to read x-rays, but also the ability to size up individuals and conduct more thorough inspections in suspicious circumstances. These are the types of skills that our Customs and Immigration inspectors have.

We can attract a workforce of this caliber by paying airline security inspectors wages comparable to those received by other federal inspectors. Federal screening inspectors would also have the opportunities for career advancement within the federal government. This potential, and the professional salary level, will greatly reduce the high turnover rate of the current system.

Another important benefit of using federal employees is that this will give the government complete control over the background checks required before an employee is hired and the training the employee receives. Under the current system, we have been unable to achieve satisfactory background checks and training because these requirements must be prescribed in regulations governing airlines and screening companies. Given the many procedural requirements of the rulemaking process, it takes many years for the government to pass regulations.

The fact that federal employees will conduct security screening need not mean that we will be unable to quickly remove under-performing employees. We can develop a special system of personnel rules for security screeners that would not have the constraints of the regular Civil Service model.

I have discussed the screening issue with colleagues from both sides of the aisle. I believe there is strong bipartisan support in the Congress for having federal employees conduct screening, even though the House of Representatives has

not gone as far as the Senate in endorsing this principle. I hope it will ultimately be upheld in Conference negotiations between the two houses.

With the appropriate counter-intelligence efforts and security implemented to the fullest extent, our citizens can forever enjoy the freedom of travel that our great nation provides.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.

 

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