Bush to offer aviation plan

President Bush is expected to announce in Chicago Thursday an anti-terrorism package that calls for heavily armed National Guard soldiers patrolling the nation's airports, thousands of federal air marshals guarding aircraft cabins and a federal takeover of passenger screening duties, according to congressional and administration sources.

Administration officials were debating Wednesday whether the president also should propose three additional security measures that are controversial: arming pilots with stun guns to help them fight off attackers, installing video surveillance cameras on aircraft and limiting carry-on luggage to reduce the volume of items that must be screened.

Congressmen familiar with the plan said Bush would propose a new airline ticket tax to help pay for tougher airport security that could run as high as $2.50 for every leg of a trip.

In addition to the strong military presence at airports, in many cases replacing police officers and private security guards with federalized National Guard units, Bush's proposal seeks to require the strengthening of cockpit doors.

In a later phase of the plan, airlines would be required to install impregnable bulkheads or partitions to further separate the cockpit from the passenger compartment, lawmakers and federal transportation officials said.

The White House confirmed that Bush is scheduled to announce his proposals at a rally at O'Hare International Airport Thursday with airline and airport workers designed to reassure the public that it is safe to fly.

Bush on Wednesday said only that he would be announcing "some confidence-boosting measures" in an effort to "convince the American public it is safe to fly."

The proposals would require congressional approval. After the hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Congress approved a $3 billion boost in federal spending for aviation security, but the Bush's plan may require more funds to pay for additional proposals.

European airfields

If Bush's ambitious package survives intact, the nation's airports could begin to resemble airfields in Europe, which for years have sought to ward off terrorism with machine-gun toting guards and armored vehicles.

Members of Congress, who have been briefed on Bush's plan this week, said it would relieve the airlines of the burden to staff passenger checkpoints in their terminals--a task the carriers currently contract out to private screening companies. Instead, the task would be reassigned to a non-profit corporation administered by the Department of Transportation.

The professional screeners who replace the low-paid screening employees now working at airport checkpoints would not be federal employees, officials said, but they would be required to meet much higher performance standards. They could be paid up to $37,000 a year, about twice what many full-time screeners now make.

Some members of Congress and airline representatives expressed disappointment that the new screeners may not become federal civil-service employees.

"We think the federalization of the screening process is really called for in light of the threat two weeks ago," said Richard Doubrava, security specialist for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) said he will insist the screeners be made federal employees in order to fully professionalize the job. But DOT officials have said such a move would require hiring 28,000 additional federal employees.

Under the Bush plan, the airlines will continue paying about $850 million a year toward the cost of screeners. The industry has argued that it can't afford to finance the cost of beefed-up security after the decrease in customers caused by the terrorist hijackings.

The security role of the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently provides air-traffic control services and regulates the safety and security of the aviation system, remained unclear. But officials said it was possible the FAA would get out of the security business entirely.

Administration officials said a "vigorous debate" was going on in the White House over a recent call by the Air Line Pilots Association to allow pilots to carry guns on board. The officials said many in the Bush administration had strong reservations about that idea, though it had not been flatly ruled out.

But the officials said the administration was also considering a proposal to arm pilots with non-lethal stun guns.

Cockpit upgrades

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), an advocate of placing video cameras inside cockpits, said he was told Bush was weighing whether to propose introducing camera surveillance both in cockpits and passenger cabins. The move wouldprovide a real-time feed to enable airline dispatchers to observe the cockpits.

Officials said the cockpit upgrades would cost about $50,000 per aircraft.

Pilots unions have long opposed cameras placed in the cockpit, citing privacy concerns. Spokesmen at ALPA and the Allied Pilots Association declined to comment on the proposal Wednesday. But one union official questioned how authorities would simultaneously monitor the videos of up to 5,000 planes in flight.

"How many people would you need to hire just to watch the TV screens?" the official said.

A top priority was the hiring of up to 12,000 air marshals to greatly expand the FAA's existing program. The FAA said Wednesday that it has received more than 150,000 applications for air marshals, who carry firearms and ride undercover aboard an undisclosed number of flights. Officials said air marshal candidates were being enlisted from federal law-enforcement agencies and undergoing four days of accelerated training before being put onto flights.

Tribune staff reporter Mike Dorning in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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