After years of criticism about inadequate passenger screening at airports, heightened security concerns have prompted new calls for the federal government to take over the job.
But such a change would cost about $1 billion annually, according to a federal report, and experts said passengers would probably have to foot the bill through higher ticket prices.
Airlines are currently responsible for staffing X-ray machines and metal detectors inside terminals. They have been criticized for hiring private security companies that use poorly paid and trained employees to do the work.
In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with overseeing airport security programs, has failed to adequately monitor the private security companies and their employees, recent federal studies have found.
Departing from its traditional viewpoint, the Air Transport Association is supporting efforts to shift responsibility for passenger screening to the federal government. "We're asking for that to be nationalized," Diana Cronan, a spokeswoman for the airline trade group, said Thursday.
Also on Thursday, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, said the federal government should take over passenger screening. Hollings, whose committee will hold a hearing Sept. 20 on airport security, "believes providing security to the public is a primary responsibility of government," said his spokesman, Andy Davis.
Four other congressmen, including Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.), said Thursday that they plan to introduce passenger safety legislation by the end of the month that would federalize airport screening systems, expand the FAA's air marshal program and limit all airline passengers to one carry-on bag.
"It's time we create a credible deterrent with a stable, well-trained federal law-enforcement screening service," co-sponsor Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a statement.
A spokesman for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation, said a hearing is being planned to discuss the gamut of aviation security issues, possibly as soon as next week. The hearing is expected to address security protocols at U.S. airports, including security screening.
"Before this week's events, I don't think anyone wanted to impede citizens' access to the airports," said Gary Burns, Mica's legislative director. "But we live in a new day."
Mica is opposed to a federal takeover of the security screening process, though he supports better training and pay for the employees, Burns said.
On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that the government is considering federalizing the airport screeners. However, Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman, said that Mineta was not implying that it "is going to happen."
While the move to federalize the screening process appears to be picking up broad support, the major debate is expected to center on how it would be funded. The government could pay for the program or require airlines to pay the additional costs.
Either way, costs are likely to be passed on to passengers through more expensive tickets. The estimated $1 billion a year price tag was cited in a report to Congress by the FAA in late 1998.
Since the mid-1970s, airlines have resisted attempts to federalize screening, apparently fearing that the additional costs would drive customers away. Cronan, the spokeswoman for the airline trade group, declined to comment on why the organization shifted its stance in the wake of the terrorist acts.
The private security companies that provide screeners to the airlines have defended their track records. While acknowledging isolated problems, they claim that they have helped maintain one of the world's safest aviation systems, even after Tuesday's hijackings.
However, federal studies have documented many long-standing weaknesses in screeners' ability to detect guns and explosives. Tests have shown that screeners failed to detect up to 1 in 5 illegal objects.
Studies cite turnover among screening personnel, who earn an average of $6.25 an hour, that has been as high as 400 percent a year at some airports.
Replacing existing screeners with a well-trained corps of federal workers would require a tax of $30 to $40 per airline ticket, said former Massachusetts Rep. Peter Blute, a longtime advocate of federalized screening. Blute said he floated the idea in the mid-1990s, but it was opposed by airline representatives, who cited concerns about higher ticket prices.
"I regret the fact that this didn't go anywhere, but I think now people should be ready for this," said Blute. "The other day's events have changed that forever. In the future, people will be willing to pay."