WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee agreed Tuesday to extend the deadline for some airports to screen all baggage for explosives and proposed more ways to tighten aviation security.
Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., filed a bill to allow up to 40 airports to take six months longer than the Dec. 31 cutoff date to meet the requirement. The committee planned to discuss the proposal Thursday.
"This is not a blanket extension of the deadline," Hollings' spokesman, Andy Davis, said Wednesday. "What they needed to do was meet some of the realities the (Transportation Security Administration) is facing."
Hollings' bill also calls for stiff penalties for people who ignore security checkpoints, more security training for aviation industry workers and an inspection program for freight shipped on passenger and cargo planes.
The TSA, created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, is responsible for airport security, including buying, installing and operating minivan-sized bomb-detection machines used to check luggage.
TSA chief James Loy told Hollings' committee last week that engineering problems will cause as many as 35 of the nation's 429 commercial airports to miss the deadline, including some major hubs.
Critics say the TSA hasn't moved fast enough to install the equipment and hire the 21,600 people needed to run it.
TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said the agency developed the ability to quickly hire thousands when it recruited a federal passenger screening workforce required by Nov. 19. Though slow to get started, the TSA hired more than 20,000 passenger screeners in August and now has the 31,693 passenger screeners it needs on the payroll.
Johnson said the TSA has turned its attention to baggage screeners. The agency hired 762 and believes it will have the rest in place by the deadline, he said.
The House voted 217-211 last month to extend the baggage deadline by a year. After the vote, managers at 133 airports asked the Senate to extend the deadline. They said without more time for the TSA to hire people and obtain machines, they would be forced to hand check bags, creating long delays.
Most members of the Commerce Committee oppose a blanket extension, Davis said, so Hollings sought a compromise.
Todd Hauptli, spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives, remains skeptical that all but 40 airports will meet the deadline. Still, he said, "while this legislation doesn't provide all the flexibility we think TSA needs, we think it's much better than Dec. 31, 2002."
Hollings' bill grants Loy the authority to relax the deadline, but requires him to submit reports on how the airports will comply and make sure other methods are used to screen baggage.
The legislation also broadens aviation security measures by mandating an inspection program for freight shipped on passenger and cargo planes. It would establish a database of trusted shippers so security could be focused on shippers who haven't passed background checks and would require security clearances for people who handle cargo.
If the bill becomes law, travelers who intentionally bypass security checkpoints at airports would be subject to penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Since the terrorist attacks, airport terminals around the country have been evacuated when people slipped by passenger screening checkpoints.
Hundreds of people were evacuated Thursday from a terminal at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport after a passenger set off a metal detector and didn't stop, federal authorities said.
Finally, the Hollings bill requires all commercial aviation workers who check IDs to undergo training in identity verification. The bill also urges the TSA to look into technologies that verify a person's identity, such as facial recognition systems.