U.S. plans new background checks on airport workers

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

A key component of a Bush administration initiative to make air travel safer will address the largely untested security status of hundreds of thousands of employees at the nation’s airports and airline companies.

According to some security experts, about 800,000 current airport and airline employees did not undergo stringent background investigations before they were hired, and the government now is weighing not only how extensively to review employees but also who should pick up the bill for scrutinizing baggage handlers, food preparers, ground and cleaning crews and other airport employees.

Some experts said that such a program could cost more than $1 billion to implement.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta will reveal a series of key decisions and recommendations Wednesday on how the government will improve safety at airports and in the air. While many of the new measures could be imposed immediately, others -- such as the extensive background checks for employees -- may require congressional action.

Some of the new security measures could change the way Americans fly.

A rule limiting carry-on baggage to one piece was imposed Tuesday on passengers flying to and from Reagan National Airport, and that restriction could soon be extended across the country.

President Bush went to Reagan National on Tuesday to announce that it was being reopened, and he said that new safety measures are in the works.

“We’re doing the right thing. We’ve taken our time. We can assure the American public, as best as we can, that we’re taking the necessary safety precautions,” the president said. “We’re spending a lot of time consulting with local officials to make sure that the security that all of us expect is in place.”

Airlines now set their own carry-on policies, with most allowing passengers to take two bags, plus additional personal items such as a coat or purse.

Flight attendants have long campaigned for a limit on carry-on baggage as a workplace safety issue. They estimate that 4,000 people a year are injured by bags falling from overhead bins. Until now, airlines have resisted a government-mandated limit for carry-ons, seeing a competitive advantage in letting passengers bring their gear into the cabin.

“We had convenience on Sept. 10 and look at what it brought us,” said Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Earlier this week, panels studying airport safety and airline carrier safety gave Mineta recommendations on new safety measures. His office said he is moving quickly to announce which measures should be implemented.

He is expected to approve the development of video surveillance systems inside planes and require new technology that prevents aircraft identification beacons from being switched off.

Bill Mosley, a Department of Transportation spokesman, said that tougher background checks of airport and airline employees are among the recommendations that Mineta is considering. How extensive -- and expensive -- those checks will be has not been determined.

One option is to have a law enforcement agency perform the background investigations as part of an even more ambitious proposal to have the government handle airport security, including passenger and baggage screening.

Meanwhile, American Airlines and United Air Lines, whose planes were hijacked by four groups of terrorists on Sept. 11, said they plan to install reinforcing bars on their cockpit doors.

On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators expressed their support for some federal role in passenger and baggage screening, and appeared likely to take up an air security bill within the next few days.

But Republicans in the GOP-controlled House appeared to be sticking with the idea that the screeners should come under federal supervision but remain private employees.

Daya Khalsa, senior vice president of Akal Security, which provides security personnel at federal courthouses around the nation and at the Honolulu airport, estimated that it would cost about $1.6 billion just for thorough background checks on 800,000 airport and airline employees who he said were not properly scrutinized when they were hired.