Senate Passes Aviation Security Act

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - The U.S. Senate has passed the Aviation Security Act, S. 1447, by a vote of 100 to zero.

"A domestic airliner is never again going to be used as a weapon of mass destruction, because we'll have that cockpit secured, never to be opened in flight," said Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee chairman Earnest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.).

In addition to requiring cockpit doors to remain locked throughout flights, the legislation would require the strengthening of cockpit doors and locks. It would also require commuter aircraft that currently do not have cockpit doors to have them installed, and provide for expansion of the air marshal program.

Airline passenger lists would be checked against a federal database of terrorist suspects under the proposal, and students entering flight schools would be required to undergo background checks.

An amendment by Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) allowing pilots and flight engineers to carry firearms was agreed to by unanimous consent, as was an amendment granting retired pilots the same hiring preference as retired law enforcement officers applying for air marshal positions.

"Pilots are the first line of deterrence, and the last line of defense," Smith said.

He explained that terrorists would be deterred knowing that they would face trained, armed opposition if they tried to enter the cockpit of a U.S. airliner. Smith said armed pilots would serve as the last line of defense should strengthened cockpit doors and air marshals fail to stop an attack.

"It's far preferable to have the pilot shoot the hijacker," he said, than to have the plane shot down by the Air Force after a terrorist gains control of it.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an otherwise staunch opponent of the Second Amendment rights of private citizens, supported Smith.

"I think this bill makes sense," she said. "It's right and it's prudent."

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) reminded fellow senators that the provision would not mandate that pilots be armed.

"Nobody has to carry a weapon if they aren't comfortable," he said.

Burns pointed out that all of the pilots killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks were military veterans, some with combat experience.

Another amendment, this one by Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) was defeated. The Carnahan amendment would have provided $1.9 billion in compensation to "displaced aviation industry workers" who have been laid off as a result of the attacks.

A similar amendment introduced by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) would have offered special compensation to workers affected by the mandatory three-week closing of Washington-Ronald Reagan National Airport. That amendment was withdrawn after it was opposed as unrelated to aviation security.

Senators on both sides of the aisle were pleased with the bipartisanship shown by the unanimous vote, according to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

"We can now begin to rehabilitate the economy of our country," she said. "With aviation security we can begin to assure the country that they can fly in safety."

The Aviation Security Act now goes to the House, where a similar bill is under consideration. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mo.) believes a conference with the House could place a finished bill on the president's desk as early as next week.

"We've got to be assured that we can tell the American people that we have addressed this aviation security question as soon as possible," he concluded.