Bush increases airport security
WASHINGTON -- Bolstering travel security for the holidays, President Bush announced a big increase in National Guard troops patrolling airports and ordered undercover surveys of checkpoints. To world leaders, he declared that "now is the time for action" against terrorism.
Bush said the number of National Guardsmen at airports will increase from nearly 7,000 to more than 9,000 for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The troops will be deployed at governors' discretion, available for everything from monitoring gates and baggage to guarding parking garages and air traffic control towers.
"These are temporary measures, and we believe they'll help a lot," Bush said.
Bush also dispensed more than $9-billion in emergency response funds Friday, with $23-million going to the Pentagon to help pay for National Guard personnel devoted to airport security duty. Bush also earmarked $170-million for additional sky marshals and security equipment for airports.
Of the $9-billion, $1.7-billion was available to federal agencies immediately. The remaining $7.5-billion -- including the National Guard and airport security funds -- would be available in 15 days.
The president was hoping to ease a national case of air travel jitters that has jolted the airline industry since the Sept. 11 attacks. Reports of people bringing weapons through airport checkpoints have fed anxieties.
Bush offered federal money shortly after the hijackings to deploy nearly 7,000 troops in airports. Those Guardsmen, plus the temporary holiday force, will be spread over 420 commercial airports and cost the federal government $270-million.
Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, said he would welcome more National Guard soldiers at Tampa International Airport.
He said he would like help with two missions: checking drivers who bring vehicles onto the airfield and observing curbside drop-offs at the terminal.
Certain trucks carrying cargo and other vehicles need to drive onto the airfield, near the runways. Miller said his staff is stationed at two gates, 24 hours per day, checking identification of anyone who drives onto the airfield. But it would be helpful to have soldiers on the job.
His staff also monitors the curbside activity at the airport terminal, to watch for unattended vehicles or other suspicious activity, he said.
Additional soldiers in the boarding areas also would be welcome.
"It's all critical. Everything we're doing is critical," Miller said.
Florida National Guard officials had no specifics about how many soldiers might be added to Florida's commercial airports, or when they would arrive.
"What we're waiting on now is the directive . . . on how we will implement the new policy," said Maj. Ron Tittle.
The president also ordered the Department of Transportation to conduct undercover audits of security performance at airports to ensure compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards.
Airport security legislation is bogged down over the question of whether to put 28,000 airport screeners on the federal payroll. Bush said lawmakers need to make "air travel safer for the American people" by passing a version of the measure.
Democrats say federalizing the workers is the best way to ensure a competent security force. But the White House says federal workers are too hard to fire, therefore not as accountable as a private work force held to strict federal standards.
-- Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.
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