WASHINGTON (AP) The government began taking charge of airport security yesterday at the start of the holiday travel season. President Bush signed legislation that will have more screeners peering in passengers” bags and more sky marshals flying on planes.
“Today we take permanent and aggressive steps to improve the security of our airways,” Bush said at a ceremony at Reagan National Airport. The new law will put airport screening in the hands of 28,000 federal workers and require inspections of all checked baggage.
The signing of the most comprehensive air security bill in the nation”s history came three days after passage by Congress and three days before Thanksgiving. Lawmakers and the administration were determined to act before the holidays in an effort to convince travelers that it was safe to get back on airplanes 10 weeks after the hijacker attacks on New York and Washington.
Fewer Americans were planning to travel by air this Thanksgiving, according to the AAA. The group, formerly known as the American Automobile Association, forecast 4.6 million people traveling by air, a 27 percent decline from last year”s 6.3 million.
The new law, said Bush, “should give all Americans greater confidence when they fly.”
For many air travelers, already seeing longer waits on the ground and more restrictions in the air, some of the effects of the law won”t be readily apparent.
“It”s not going to be a dramatic change immediately,” said Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner. “There are thousands of posts to be filled and dozens of mandates and milestones.”
Federal managers will be moving into position at screening stations, although it will take a while, probably three months, before travelers see uniformed federal workers doing the screening, said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
The law calls for all screening operations, now run by private security companies, to be under federal control within a year, with all 28,000 screeners on the federal payroll. After three years, airports can shift to other non-federal security systems if they meet certain conditions but they will remain under federal supervision.
There will soon be more law enforcement officers at strategic points: At least one must be assigned to every screening station at major airports.
Passengers will face more hand searches of carryon bags, more hand-wand patdowns and more computer-assisted prescreening, including crosschecks with FBI and other watch lists.