By Scott Lindlaw
WASHINGTON – President Bush signed legislation today to put the nation’s airport baggage screeners on the federal payroll, part of an effort to enhance airline safety and reassure passengers the skies are safe 10 weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“For our airways there is one supreme priority, security,” Bush said in a ceremony at Reagan National Airport that coincided with the beginning of the busy holiday travel season. “For the first time, airport security will become a direct federal responsibility.”
The legislation – the subject of political wrangling – was the latest in a series of steps the government has taken to tighten safety in the skies. Additional air marshals have been assigned to flights in greater numbers; airline companies have strengthened cockpit doors and members of the National Guard now patrol many of the nation’s airports.
The measure requires airports to expand inspections of checked baggage, and explosive detection systems are to be in place by the end of next year. The Transportation Department may authorize pilots to have weapons in the cockpit of their planes.
To finance the security improvements, passengers will be charged a $2.50 fee each time they board a plane for a flight, up to $5 per trip.
Congress began work on the measure not long after the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings that killed thousands in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Final passage was delayed for weeks, though, in a partisan struggle over the status of baggage screeners. The Senate voted 100-0 for legislation putting them on the federal payrolls, but House Republicans opposed to an expansion of the government work force dug in their heels and won passage of a bill that would have left them in private companies.
Bush voiced support for the House alternative, but also signaled his willingness to sign any bill Congress sent him.
The compromise bill he signed requires all 28,000 baggage screeners to become federal employees, with the exception of five facilities that will take part in a pilot program testing alternatives. After three years, airports may seek permission form the government to return to a private system of monitoring.
In his remarks, Bush noted the differences of opinion, but said passage of the measure was a fresh sign of the nation’s unity after the terrorist attacks.
“Security comes first. The federal government will set high standards. And we will enforce them,” he said.
The measure was the fifth bill related to the terrorist attacks that Congress has passed and the president signed. Others included an explicit authorization of the use of military force; a bailout of the airline industry; a $40 billion spending measure; and provisions to strengthen the hand of federal investigators going after terrorism.
Congress is still working on two other related measures, one to stimulate the economy and another to fight bioterrorism.
Later today, Bush planned to address an Iftaar dinner for Muslims, traditionally held at the end of daylong fasts through the month of Ramadan, in the State Dining Room at the White House.
He also was to meet with his Cabinet.
On Sunday, Bush fished with his father, the former president before leaving his central Texas ranch for Washington.
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