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Debating Airline Safety

Aired October 16, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Should workers that screen your luggage be added to the federal payroll? Who can keep the skies safer, the government or the private sector? And should we have pistol-packing pilots?


Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Guess what bill won't be passed when President Bush leaves for China Thursday? The airport security bill. Even with 6000 people dead because terrorists hijacked four airliners September 11, a legislative remedy has been held up in Congress. The reason is ideology.

Shall luggage screening be handled by profit-hungry private firms or by the same federal government that has brought us the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service? And then there's the question of who should be armed on board airliners: air marshals making $80,000 a year, or pilots burdened by a lot of other duties.

Debating the issues are Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a member of the House aviation subcommittee. And Republican Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona, a member of the House commerce committee.

A former Democratic Congressman from New Mexico, the Honorable Bill Richardson, is sitting in for Bill Press on the left. Bill.

BILL RICHARDSON, GUEST HOST: Congressman, the current system of airport security run by private firms is a disaster. Even since September 11th, seven out of our 20 airports are not meeting minimum federal standards. Still we have baggage not X-rayed. Background checks on airport personnel near airports, near planes, is not happening. Why can't House Republicans supports a bill that passed the Senate 100 to nothing that federalizes airport security.

REP. JOHN SHADEGG (R), ARIZONA: I think there are serious flaws in that bill. Number one, it requires that all screening be done by federal employees, but it doesn't define term screening. I think the issue is not who pays them, but rather their competency. I think we ought to be doing this in an appropriate, thoughtful fashion and legislation ought to follow what we call regular order. It should go through the committee process. That's what will happen I believe this week, and I think we will pass a good piece of legislation, as we have done in other areas since this crisis. NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, what's wrong with just having very strict regulations that we don't have now, stopping having minimum wage people in the private sector but don't add a whole new bunch of government workers. Why not just have that government regulate private workers?

REP. PETER DEFAZIO (D), OREGON: Law enforcement is a legitimate federal government function. The private firms are failing us now. The largest firm in the United States is in court again. Second criminal complaint in two years: violating their probation, still hiring known felons and still maintaining known felons on staff.

We have those regulations. They are violating them. The government does the agricultural inspection service. Even the Beagles are federal law enforcement officers in Hawaii sniffing your bags. The INS, customs, the model is there.

We know we can do the background checks. We know we can get the job. We can have the highest standards and give them a good salary and benefits and get rid of the turn over. And make them all U.S. citizens.

RICHARDSON: Congressman, let me take off on what Congressman Peter DeFazio said. Here you have this firm called Argenbright. Our justice department is saying they are not following procedures for screening employees, for screening all types of baggage security. They are hiring felons. This is a disaster. This is still happening after September 11.

You mentioned we should go through regular order, the committee process. We have a crisis here, and I think Democrats -- rightfully so -- have supported the president on national security, on terrorism issues. Shouldn't you just give up on this and move ahead?

SHADEGG: They should support the president on this issue. The president has taken a position that of course this should be federal responsibly, that air support security should come under the aegis of the federal government: the hiring, the training, the supervision of all this personnel should be done by the federal government.

But he's also followed the model that's worked around the world. In Europe there are 16 countries which have moved to a private and government system, where the government supervises the process, but not all employees are federal government employees. That's what the Senate bell does. It says every single employee involved in the screening must be a federal employee, as though that would solve the problem. The issue here is not where the paycheck comes from, Bill. The issue is the competency of the people doing the work. And nobody is defending the current system.

NOVAK: You want to the get in there?

DEFAZIO: Yeah. First, I agree with John on regular order. I believe if we could bring this bill up in committee, that in fact we would win the debate. We have a better Democratic alternative. It's more comprehensive. It requires that all baggage, all luggage and all packages shipped on planes be screened as soon as practicable. But it also does have a federal law enforcement work force.

I mean, if the Beagle sniffing your bag in Hawaii are federal law enforcement officers, why aren't the first line of defense for screening a passenger, for keeping criminals and illicit substances off airplanes, why aren't they federal law enforcement officials? You could have better-supervised private people, but they aren't going to have the powers of arrest, interrogation.

I'm worried about the failing private system we have now. It's failing. This company in is court. They are violating probation. This is the largest one in the United States. Come on. It's not working.

SHADEGG: You are debating an issue that isn't the issue.


RICHARDSON: What the president and some of you are proposing is a classic compromise. Federal supervision of private workers. Why don't we just do it right and federalize this? You gave the example of Europe. You can't compare the United States to Europe. We have 140 airports here. In Europe, you have all kinds of different systems. Why isn't -- for instance, El-Al spends eight percent of their revenue on airport security. Our airlines less than one percent. The present system is not working.

SHADEGG: I agree. The present system is not working. I'm glad you cited El-Al. In point of fact, El-Al uses a mixture of government supervision -- law enforcement employees, as Peter talks about. But the work force itself is actually contracted from a private contractor. That's how El-Al does it.

These 16 countries that have moved to a private system originally had an all-government employee system. That system didn't work. The head of Belgium's aviation inspectorate, who is the chairman of Europe-wide task force on aviation security, said it's harder to do quality control on our government people. Civil servants are hard to get rid of if they aren't performing.

DEFAZIO: The Democratic version of the bill, John, would suspend civil service protections for these employees. We in fact would say they could be fired promptly on a performance basis.

SHADEGG: You are not urging to us to just vote for the Senate bill?


NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, I have waited patiently with all these highfalutin arguments. But let's get to the real meat of this: there hasn't been this many additional federal workers added to the work force since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. These people will be in labor unions. The labor unions are controlled by the Democrats. What you are looking for is 28,000 additional Democratic votes and more clout for the labor movement. Isn't that what's at stake here? DEFAZIO: That's an extraordinary charge. You know, I just can't believe you are going there. We are talking about the best system we can provide to make people safe. We have a failing private system. The argument is: regulate them better. Guess what? We have been trying to regulate them better for six years. The airlines, the private security firms and the Office of Management and Budget under this administration held up those rules.

Now we are saying, "We are ready for the rules. We are going to put more rules on these firms that are failing us, that are in court, that are hiring felons, and make the system work better." I suppose you're going to have to mandate wages, because that's a big problem, the turnover. You're going to have to mandate wages, benefits, you're going to have to mandate the background checks, you're going to have to train them, you're going to have to do all these things. When you get to the end of the day, why not just make them into federal employees?

SHADEGG: In a way, you didn't answer the charge. What is there about their status as a federal employee that changes everything. How does that suddenly do something...

DEFAZIO: They can't be in a labor union if they're private. In fact, FDIU is opposing this because they have organized Los Angeles Airport and they want it to stay private, because they've organized the people there.

NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, I just love this fascination with people who work for the federal government. I would like to read you something that was written by Perry Flint who is the executive editor of "Air Transport World Magazine." He had a little tongue and cheek. I want to ask you: "Will the security staff be required to stay at their scanners when bad weather delays departures and arrivals past quitting time? What happens on federal snow days?"

I mean, federal workers don't have a very good reputation. You may love their votes, but they don't do a very good job, do they?

DEFAZIO: Bob, you are stuck in the pre-September 11 world, where everybody wanted to bash the federal government. Guess what? My constituents and people across America are looking to the federal government to make them safe against terrorism. This isn't the old days where you can just bash federal workers.

NOVAK: Who said anything about bashing federal workers?

DEFAZIO: You are bashing federal workers. You're saying they won't come to work on snow days. That they won't do this or they won't do that.

SHADEGG: You said that. Let's talk about the merits of this issue. You say, for example, that they will be prohibited from striking and that they will have limited civil service rights. You never heard of a blue flu amongst a police force? You've never heard of teachers taking strikes?

DEFAZIO: Look at the current record. In one year...

SHADEGG: The record is that in Europe, they had totally a government system.

RICHARDSON: Apples and oranges.

SHADEGG: And beginning in 1982, they want to a combination of federal support...


DEFAZIO: At Schiphol Airport it's two private employees to one federal supervisor.

SHADEGG: I actually have a mix that shows what the mix in all of those airports. This is for all of those airports.

DEFAZIO: Mr. Quinn, a former FAA employee who now lobbies Congress...


RICHARDSON: Let me just bring in one statistic. 126 percent turnover in the private system right now of airport screening personnel. 126 percent. Lamburg Field, 145 percent. Within one year, 98, 99. You talked about the politics issue. Aren't we also talking about private security companies that mainly help you guys that get $500 million worth of contracts every year that would be lost.

SHADEGG: No. What we're talking about is a system that works. The turnover in Europe is dramatically lower than ours. It's in the neighborhood of five percent a year.

DEFAZIO: So you are willing to set wages at those levels?

SHADEGG: I'm willing to do what is necessary to make them competent, and not to do the simplistic approach that the Senate bill does. It simply says "all employees." Let's go there.

DEFAZIO: If you're going to stop the turnover you're going to have to mandate...

SHADEGG: Absolutely. Do I think they should be paid well? Absolutely. Should they be screened? I think they should even perhaps be licensed the way we license aircraft mechanics. But making them federal employees doesn't solve the issue.

NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, let me ask you a really simple question, because all talk about screening -- there was nothing that happened on September 11th that violated the Federal Aviation regulations on screening. You could have had Ph.D.s in there doing the screening process and we would still have had this disaster. Am I correct?

DEFAZIO: The FAA... NOVAK: Am I correct?

DEFAZIO: You're partially correct. We don't even know that these knives went through screening, to tell the truth. We shouldn't just be arguing about screening. There is whole host of other things we have to do in the airport on which there is more substantial agreement.

NOVAK: Right. But if you have


NOVAK: ... workers wouldn't have made any difference, would it?

DEFAZIO: But the problem is, you have known felons working for the largest firm.

SHADEGG: Now you're talking about the whole system.

DEFAZIO: The FAA Red Team gets through a very large percentage classified of the time with...

SHADEGG: Now you're talking about current system. Nobody is defending the current system. But look at the flaws in the Senate bill. I'm perfectly willing to work toward good legislation. The Senate bill is absolutely silent as to the people who come on the plane and clean it, as to people that come on and provide the food.

DEFAZIO: Not the Democratic version in the House.

SHADEGG: So far as we know, for example, these box cutters got on the plane by either cleaning crews or food crews.

DEFAZIO: That could well have been.

SHADEGG: So just rushing and saying, "this is an outrage that the president is going to go to China before we pass this bill..."

DEFAZIO: I didn't say that. That was Mr. Novak.

NOVAK: That was me. That's OK. It doesn't matter whether you passed it or not.

DEFAZIO: No, we should have passed it. I tried to append this to the original airline bailout. I said, the airlines really care about the $16 billion bailout. This is the time to help the workers and get security. I wasn't allowed to have those amendments put on the bill.

SHADEGG: This is a national emergency. To his credit, Peter has been working on this issue for a long time.

NOVAK: We're going to have to take a break. When we come back, we will ask these Congressmen what they think of pistol-packing pilots.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Americans fly, there need to more highly-skilled and fully equipped officers of law flying alongside them. These marshals, of course, will wear plainclothes. They are going to be like any other passenger. But Americans will know that there is more of them, and our crews will know there is more of them. And the terrorists will know there's more of them.


RICHARDSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Bill Richardson, sitting in on the left for Bill Press. We're debating who's responsible for keeping the skies safe. Should the federal government foot the bill for airport luggage screeners? Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon says yes. Would you be comfortable with armed pilots in the cockpit? Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona says the pilots must be able to defend themselves. Bob?

NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, I would like you to listen for a moment to Captain Duane Woerth of the Airline Pilot's Association and something he had to say the other day. Let's listen.


CAPTAIN DUANE WOERTH, AIRLINE PILOT'S ASSOCIATION: The arming of the pilots should still be under serious consideration. 6,300 people are dead for one reason: eight pilots were killed.


NOVAK: The airline pilot's union wants the pilots to be armed. Of course, they would have to be trained. They want them to be armed so they can protect themselves. And we would have saved 6,000 lives. What is wrong with that?

DEFAZIO: Actually, the Democratic version of the bill says that the undersecretary could authorize appropriate defensive measures -- and weapons -- for all members of the crew. The flight attendants want to have tasers or something like that. First off, we've got to check out the electronic weapons, because we don't what they will do on fly-by-wire aircraft. The FAA hasn't checked that out yet. There are electronic weapons that can take down a plane.

Today I talked to a pilot that said, "Couldn't you at least in the interim give us pepper spray?" I said, "Yes. Why not?" Sure. Give them something. When you get to the question of guns, a lot of pilots are nervous about guns on the flight deck. They say, if they get to the flight deck, we have failed. That means the CAPS systems didn't work, the screening didn't work and our reinforced door didn't work. You know, will we be able to defend ourselves.

NOVAK: Wait a minute. The Airline Pilot's Association, which is a union -- I thought you guys liked unions over on the Democratic side. They have voted by the Democratic process in favor of guns, and that makes them feel more secure.

DEFAZIO: I'm not aware -- they have not had a vote. There is considerable dissension within the union.

NOVAK: Isn't it true, Congressman, if you had had airline pilots with guns and these terrorists with their knives or their box cutters had come in there, we would not have had 6,000 dead people.

DEFAZIO: I tell you what, Bob. This isn't going to happen like this again. Most of those pilots -- because they were looking at 1970 tapes; take me to to Cuba -- and that's how they were trained. They were trained to be passive. They didn't fight at all.

In fact, people with knives are not a very awesome force. You saw what happened in Pennsylvania. The people took the plane down after they had allowed the hijackers to take it over. I don't think it's going to happen like that again. But the point is, we are saying the undersecretary should determine what is an appropriate level of force. We're not going to mandate guns. We're not prohibiting them.

RICHARDSON: Congressman John Shadegg, I want to find something where you and I agree.

SHADEGG: Why is that, Bill?

RICHARDSON: Because he is from Arizona and I'm from New Mexico. We have now enhanced cockpits, sky marshals.

SHADEGG: Unfortunately, we don't have them yet. But we need them.

RICHARDSON: We need them badly. Do you really think we need to arm the pilots? I mean, don't you think they should concentrate on flying? If we have sky marshals, if we have all this dramatically enhanced security.

SHADEGG: Of course they should concentrate on flying. But for those pilots -- and this was mentioned earlier in Bob's exchange with Peter -- those pilot that want to be armed would be armed with low- velocity weapons. I think they should have that right, certainly right now.

And Peter talked about the climate. These hijackings occurred because people believed it was a good old Cuban-style '50s hijacking where we are going to be taken to the ground. That climate has change forever. One thing that we're changing is the message went out across the world that American pilots who want to be -- and are trained -- and who choose to be armed are in fact armed with weapons that fire low-velocity bullets or with tasers weapons or...

RICHARDSON: So we're going to have sky marshals armed. You're going to have pilots armed.

SHADEGG: I have to tell you, I personally believe this kind of hijacking will never happen again in America, because the passengers won't sit still for it. But I think for those pilots who give their lives to this service, most of whom are ex-military, most of whom are very experienced with weapons, and they are saying to us -- many of them are staying to us -- individual pilots on the flights that I fly on back and forth here to Washington. They are saying to me, "Congressman, I would like to be able to be armed." I applaud Peter for saying that is a reasonable request and it certainly ought to be studied.

RICHARDSON: Let me turn to minority leader Gephardt, something that he said today about this issue to try to wrap up.


CHARLES GEPHARDT, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: A minority wants to maintain the status quo. Unbending to consensus, uninterested in collaboration and compromise. They have refused to think anew and act anew in light of the attacks because of unwavering ideological opposition to expanding the number of federal law enforcement officers.


SHADEGG: Now that's an outrageous statement that ends bipartisanship.

RICHARDSON: No, no, Congressman. No, no.

SHADEGG: Their position is, the Senate bill or no bill. We should have voted on it yesterday.

RICHARDSON: 100 percent of the senators voted for the bill. Isn't this an issue? Don't we have system now where the lowest bidder wins to deal with our airport security?

SHADEGG: Again, you are defending the current system. Nobody is defending the current system. The president has proposed the system that works in Europe, and it's the system that works for El-Al.

RICHARDSON: It's not the same.

SHADEGG: OK. I asked Peter to tell me what about the fact that their paycheck comes from the federal government would makes the skies safer. Peter never gave me an answer. Here is your turn. Give me an answer.

RICHARDSON: Federal employees would be well trained. They would well paid. Congressman.

DEFAZIO: It's not where the paycheck comes from.


DEFAZIO: It's the fact that they would be federal law enforcement officers. If we think we need federal law enforcement officers to keep illicit agricultural goods out of Hawaii or from coming back to the U.S., if we need them at INS, if we need them at customs, why don't we need them to screen at the airport? They would then have the powers of detention, interrogation, arrest.

SHADEGG: Someone with the power of detention and arrest and interrogation should be at every single gate. That doesn't mean every single person standing in front of every single screen and saying, "Empty your pockets of change," has to be a federal law enforcement person. That's crazy.

NOVAK: Congressman DeFazio, I want you to be a profile in courage now on national television.

DEFAZIO: Again? I'm ready.

NOVAK: Wasn't that an outrageous partisan tirade by my friend Dick Gephardt?

DEFAZIO: I'll say -- I have been savaging Dick in the caucus back during the airline bailout. He has been incredibly patient and bipartisan beyond the means.

NOVAK: Until today. That was an outrageous partisan statement.

DEFAZIO: We need to disagree on principal and we are disagreeing on principle.

SHADEGG: So you and I are disagreeing on principle.

DEFAZIO: No. But let's have an up or down vote. That's what he said. He said, "let's bring bill up and let's have a legislative process."

SHADEGG: He made a purely partisan charge and said that we are the ones who were insisting that it be our way. The Senate is insisting that it be his way.

DEFAZIO: That was the fight, John. I was there. I was standing behind him.

NOVAK: Let me bring up a non-ideological, nonpartisan question. You are on the aviation subcommittee. You know this plan. Isn't the rule that a plane coming out of Reagan National Airport, nobody can stand up for the last 30 minutes. isn't that FAA stupidity?

DEFAZIO: You know, the FAA -- I'm not going to defend them. They have done things that I have disagreed with over the years. I have been on planes where pilots won't let you use the first-class bathroom because it's too close to flight deck. I said the first week, "I'm kind of a home handyman. I know how to reinforce these doors. Why are we delaying putting cross bars on planes."

NOVAK: Answer my question, please. Isn't that stupid? You have an hour-long flight from New York to Washington and you can't stand up for the last half hour of the flight. Does that make any sense?

DEFAZIO: They are just be extraordinarily cautious.

NOVAK: Stupid, I would say. DEFAZIO: Extraordinary cautious. They have armed sky marshals on board. They will have fewer people to watch if people aren't standing up, I guess. I haven't discussed that with them. There are other concerns I have. But let's go back to the guns. In an interesting exchange I had with El-Al representatives, they've actually taken the guns out because they are so satisfied with their flight deck security that they have taken the guns out.

SHADEGG: And the pilots themselves may in fact agree to that at some point in time, but we don't have secure cockpits right now. We do not have competent screeners right.

DEFAZIO: It's a scandal that we don't have reinforced doors.

SHADEGG: I think president ought to move by executive order. He ought to move by executive order today. I wish he'd moved by executive order last Friday.

NOVAK: We are out of time. Thank you very much, Congressman Shadegg, Congressman DeFazio. And ex-Congressman Richardson and never-Congressman Novak will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Bill, let's be frank. Your old colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle salivate at the thought of the first new infusion of federal workers since LBJ. The idea of all these union, dues-paying members voting Democratic. They just love that. It has nothing to do with security.

RICHARDSON: I think the politics here, Bob, is on the Republican side. Here you have an issue; responding to the terrorist attack, where the country, the president, the Congress have been together. This area, airline, airport security, is really gotten into total partisanship. 100 to nothing in the Senate. Republican senators supporting the Senate bill to federalize.

NOVAK: They were bullied. There was bullying.

RICHARDSON: But what you have now is a few idealogues in the House holding up a bill. We should have one right before Thanksgiving.

NOVAK: I don't understand why we can't have private firms with workers regulated by the government. We are out of time, Bill.

RICHARDSON: From the left, I'm Bill Richardson. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: Thank you, Bill. From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.




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