Nov. 16, 2001

Aviation Security Compromise Takes Major Strides Forward

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

The House-Senate conference agreement on airport security is a promising sign that Congress and the White House now appreciate the public s desire for strong aviation safety and security regulations. It is an important leap forward, and President Bush should sign it into law immediately.

Federally employed airport screeners, who will undergo effective training and pass criminal background checks, will be a vital part of a more effective and unified security system, and it is unlikely that many airports would opt to revert to using contract employees in the future. Stronger cockpit doors, to be locked during flight, are a second critical part of that system and should have been introduced years ago, despite resistance from the airlines. Negotiators were also wise to increase the number of federal sky marshals on flights.

Although we had called for the Department of Justice, rather than the Department of Transportation (DOT), to oversee the strengthened aviation security system, we are encouraged that it will be managed as a separate agency under the DOT, and hope that it will not be undermined by constant industry demands for lessened security, as was the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

We are disturbed, however, that the conference agreement limits the liability for all claims against an air carrier, aircraft manufacturer, airport sponsor or the World Trade Center leaseholder to the value of those entities insurance coverage. Such a precedent implicitly tells these parties and others that they are likely to receive similar relief for future attacks, thereby reducing their incentive to adequately protect the public. This is particularly true for the airlines, which for years successfully opposed improved aircraft design and airport security measures.

Another deficiency in the conference bill is that it exempts the new federal airport security personnel from the civil service system (including whistleblower protections), inappropriately subjecting them to the whims of supervisors and making them fearful of objecting to abuses. Other federal security personnel, including the FBI, are covered by civil service or similar rules. Congress should correct this defect.

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