Lawmakers Seek Airline Security Solutions

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - Eager to quickly put in place effective security policies, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has introduced a bill that would deploy "sky marshals" on random U.S. flights.

"The unfathomable unfolded before our eyes on September 11," said Hutchison, the ranking Republican on the aviation subcommittee. "We can no longer be blind to our worst nightmare. It has happened, and now we must pledge that we will not allow such cowards an unencumbered opportunity ever again."

The Federal Aviation Administration has had the authority to deploy sky marshals since the hijacking of TWA flight 847 en route from Athens to Rome in June 1985, according to Hutchison.

A training facility exists in Atlantic City, N.J., but the FAA has not revealed the number or identity of the marshals, the routes they fly or the details of their training.

"Clearly, the current sky marshal program needs to be substantially expanded," Hutchison said.

"We can save valuable time and resources by building on what already exists," she said. "My bill gives the FAA the authority to hire and train the officers, but requires extensive background checks be conducted and the officers to be trained to deal with situations such as the ones aboard the four aircraft hijacked Tuesday."

Hutchison's Emergency Aviation Security Act of 2001 would be a temporary, one-year program that would authorize the FAA to assess a ticket fee of not more than $1 per passenger on each segment of a domestic flight. The senator estimated 600 million people flew through U.S. airports last year.

Under Hutchison's plan, after one year, the FAA would report to Congress on the success of the program, making recommendations whether it should be continued. The bill gives the FAA 30 days from enactment to determine training requirements and guidelines.

"Under current procedures, the pilot and copilot are charged with the responsibility of dealing with unruly passengers, as well as more serious threats. I believe that pilots should fly the plane - period, [and] a sky marshal would relieve the pilot and copilot of these additional responsibilities," said Hutchison.

Last year, Hutchison authored the Airport Security Improvement Act, which was signed into law November 2000. This legislation requires criminal history record checks and increased training for all baggage screeners. It also tightened access protocols for aircraft and high-priority areas.

The General Accounting Office had previously warned Congress about on-going security risks. The GAO looked not at the sky marshal program but at airport screening systems.

In April 2000, GAO official Gerald L. Dillingham told a House subcommittee that the FAA and the airline industry "have made little progress in improving the effectiveness of airport check point screeners."

"Screeners are not adequately detecting dangerous objects, and the long-standing problems affecting screeners' performance remain, such as the rapid [turnover of employees] and the inattention to screener training," said Dillingham.

Screeners in at least five other countries had better job performance than those in the U.S., according to Dillingham.

See related story:Congress Warned About Airline Security Risks