Nearly 15,000 new federal employees would have to be hired for air marshals to travel on all U.S. commercial airline flights, according to Morton Belger, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. "We're absolutely looking at it," Belger told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing Monday. He said 14,000 air marshals, who would work in teams of two, would be needed to cover the more than 35,000 flights daily on 7,000 commercial aircraft. Federal air marshals are plainclothed, armed law enforcement officers who fly unannounced on domestic and international flights. In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, President Bush and lawmakers have called for a dramatic increase in the number of these so-called "sky cops." The FAA has already begun hiring more marshals and borrowing law enforcement officers from other agencies to help patrol the skies. Belger declined to say how many air marshals fly today, but published reports indicate the FAA has only about 50 marshals. He said the FAA would not decide how many air marshals will be added until two security task forces created by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta make recommendations. Belger also declined to comment whether the FAA will take passenger screening operations away from the private sector and federalize those jobs until the task forces make their recommendations. Those reports are due Oct. 1. Congress is debating legislation that would allow the federal government to take over control of passenger-screening operations at all U.S. airports. Airlines now are responsible for those security operations and typically contract them out to private sector security companies. Mineta has said the cost of federalizing these operations would be $1.8 billion annually and would likely add 28,000 civil servants to the federal payroll. Gerald Dillingham, the General Accounting Office's director of physical infrastructure reviews, told senators at the hearing that responsibility for airport screening must be assigned to a single entity. Currently, the FAA oversees security regulation. But in some cases, Dillingham said, more than one contractor handles security operations at an airport. Dillingham offered four alternatives for rearranging screening operations:
Continue to make the airlines responsible for security operations, but with much tighter regulation and certification requirements for screening companies.
Make individual airports responsible for screening operations.
Create a new Transportation Department organization to establish a national screening program with a federal workforce.
Create a federal corporation, similar to Amtrak, that would oversee a national screening program.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the FAA would be the ideal agency to house a new aviation screening organization because it is one of the only federal agencies using a flexible pay system, which would allow the proper people to be recruited and hired quickly. Belger said expanded federal control of screening operations would make it easier for security operators to access information from federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI. A lack of communication between screening operators and law enforcement agencies has been cited as a factor in allowing suspected terrorists to board planes on Sept. 11.
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