Congress is back in session today and some lawmakers are hoping to revive debate over a new aviation security bill. The Senate unanimously approved legislation three weeks ago that would make the nation's 28,000 airport screeners federal employees. But House members remain divided over the issue. Democrats support federalizing airport security, while Republicans favor federal oversight of private security companies. Both parties agree on other security measures such as strengthening cockpit doors and putting more federal air marshals on domestic flights. But some people - among them the world's largest union of flight attendants -say other security loopholes are not being addressed. The bottom line is that many people are still afraid to fly. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- If you've traveled out of Cleveland Hopkins airport in the last few weeks, you know the new drill. Arrive several hours before your flight is scheduled to leave, don't bring more than one carry-on bag, and expect to see your pocket knife, nail clippers, or even razor confiscated by airport screeners. Also, expect to see armed police and National Guard members patrolling concourses and overseeing checkpoints. These and other security measures were required by the Federal Aviation Administration before airports were allowed to re-open after September 11. But some say they're not enough.
I'm scared of being in here right now... you know what I mean?
It's no surprise that many people say they're still afraid of flying. This despite the fact that airlines and the FAA are doing everything they can to convince Americans that flying has never been safer. Cecilia Huntziger is the agency's chief administrator for the Great Lakes Region. She spoke recently to aviation students at Kent State University about getting Americans back in the air.
Cecilia Huntziger- The requirements and qualifications of federal air marshals - we call them FAM's - are among the most stringent of any U.S. federal agency in the country. The goal is to have sufficient FAM's to adequately cover domestic, as well as international flights.
KS- Congressional leaders have also recognized the vital role airlines play in the U.S. economy. Congress voted money for federal air marshals in its first round of funding after the attacks. They also approved $15 billion in emergency aid and guaranteed loans to help bail out airlines suffering from the double whammy of international terrorism and a slowing economy. Ohio Senator George Voinovich says making sure passenger and baggage screeners are top notch is essential to restoring confidence in the airways.
George Voinovich- The bill that passed the Senate federalizes them. And frankly, I'm for that. I know there's some debate about whether they should be private and so forth, but I think that this is a significant enough commitment that we need to make as a nation, that we ought to do that. And I think that's the only way that people are going to have the confidence that these are the best and brightest people.
KS- Most U.S. airlines also approve of turning over airport security to the government. Continental Airlines president Larry Kellner told members of the City Club last week that he hopes the House will pass a similar bill.
Larry Kellner- We fly today to 64 cities, non-stop from Cleveland. That's down from 78 prior to September 11. We have 215 daily departures out of Cleveland today. That's down 14% from September.
KS- Cutbacks in air travel have also meant lost jobs. Airline layoffs nationwide have topped 100,000 pilots, flight attendants and service personnel. There have also been reductions in related industries, including hotels, restaurants, and the airports themselves. Dawn Deeks is a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 26 airlines and more than 90,000 workers worldwide. While she's concerned about the effect of industry layoffs, she's also worried about the safety of those who remain on the job.
Dawn Deeks- We are really no more safe than we were on September 10. We need to make sure that these loopholes are closed, and closed for good, before America's flight attendants will feel like the government and the Department of Transportation have done their job.
KS- Deeks says at airports across the country most checked baggage is still not searched or screened. Continental President Larry Kellner confirms that statement. The flight attendants' union is also calling for security screening of catering and ground service personnel and all airport vendors. Deeks worries that these and other loopholes in airport security jeopardize the safety of both passengers and crew.
DD- We owe it to the 25 flight attendants that we lost, we owe it to the 6,000 people on the ground in New York and D.C. to make sure that we strengthen the security perimeters around the airport, around the aircraft, so that something like this will never happen again.
KS- At Cleveland Hopkins there are also security gaps around the perimeter of the airport. While parking lots and most freight and catering operations are secured behind locked gates, none of the airlines cargo-handling docks are fenced or guarded. And just off the highway, a jet fuel storage tank is completely accessible to any passing motorist.
While many flights are still taking off half-empty, there are certainly more people traveling by air now than there were just a few weeks ago. Even so, the overwhelming majority of travelers say they're still afraid to fly.
We're just going to have to get rid of the terrorist problems that we have and then maybe people will fly again when it's over.
I'm going, but I'm still worried.
We were going to New York this weekend and we decided maybe Chicago would be a better idea. And we really didn't want to be in Washington this weekend either.
I think time will be the only thing that instills real confidence in people flying.
Industry analysts are hoping the upcoming holidays will spark an increase in air travel. And President Bush has said he'll step in if the House doesn't take action soon on aviation security. But it's clear that it's not just security issues that are keeping Americans from flying. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.