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DEBATE SURROUNDS FEDERAL ROLE FOR AIR SECURITY WORKERS

Reaction was divided in Congress and the nation Thursday over a key part of President Bush's airline security plan, with a possible fight over legislation that would federalize security workers who screen passengers and baggage at airports.

Making these workers federal employees could mean millions of dollars worth of lost business for private security companies at the nation's airports.

At Buffalo Niagara International Airport, for example, it would mean severing a private security agency, ITS, from its contract with US Airways. The contract is worth an estimated $700,000 a year, according to air transport officials.

Spokesmen for ITS did not return calls requesting comment.

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said today that Reagan National Airport will reopen, adding that an announcement could come next week.

Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Mineta said the airport will reopen and the Transportation Department is working with the National Security Council and Secret Service to develop a security plan to make that possible.

The airport just outside Washington is the nation's only commercial airport still closed as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Bush outlined his airline security plan Thursday in a speech to 6,000 airline workers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. "We will not surrender our freedom to travel," he asserted. "We're not only united, we're determined."

Bush said he wants to put the federal government in charge of supervising and training private security personnel who check passengers at metal detectors.

Bush authorized $500 million in grants to the airlines to strengthen cockpit doors and study technology that would allow air traffic controllers to take control of a plane if the pilot were incapacitated.

He asked the nation's governors to post National Guard troops at airports Thursday as a first step to take federal control of airline security and coax Americans back into the skies. But he stopped short of endorsing bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate that would make all such airport personnel employees of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, said Bush's plans don't go far enough.

Hollings said he will "insist" on federalizing the screening personnel. His bill has been endorsed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and three Republican senators. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., backed the concept in a news conference Wednesday.

Quinn, in an interview, said turnover of security employees at Buffalo Niagara International Airport is about 30 percent a year, a reflection of the low pay and uncertain benefits they receive. Transportation experts who spoke on condition of anonymity said that security employees make about $7 an hour and that many lack comprehensive health benefits.

A report by the General Accounting Office last year said the screening personnel are so poorly trained and treated that turnover at some airports ranges as high as 400 percent a year.

The GAO said the high attrition rates mean there are huge numbers of people who are now very familiar with how airport screening works and knowledgeable about system loopholes.

Even with the sky marshal program reinvigorated by Bush, most flights are only half full, Quinn said. "We have to do something fundamental to get people to fly again," he said.

Though Bush said he wants the Army National Guard to help with airport security, plans for deploying it were sketchy. Gov. George E. Pataki is still waiting for the White House to finalize this part of the president's plan.

Pataki did say the Guard is working on a plan to activate the right personnel and get the training they need to help provide security at the state's commercial airports.

A senior administration official said an average of 10 soldiers could be assigned to every airport in the country.

The Air Line Pilots Association supported the president's plan, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Association of Flight Attendants want the screeners to work for the federal government.

New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial, president of the mayors conference, said, "We now turn to Congress" to ensure that all airport security personnel are federalized."

The flight attendants union wants screening personnel to work for the Department of Justice.

Though the president has ordered sky marshals returned to domestic flights, they will not be present on all flights. For security reasons, the White House declined to specify how many sky marshals are being hired.

The Bush administration has taken some backward steps after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, according to Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

Five days after the attacks, he said, the FAA lifted a ban on private aircraft except within 25 miles of New York City and Washington.

"The risk of terrorists' using such planes to attack tall or landmark buildings requires temporary restrictions," he said.

News Albany correspondent Tom Precious contributed to this report.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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