WASHINGTON — Federal transportation officials told Congress Thursday that steps are under way to increase airline security beyond the measures initially announced in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Two task forces are looking at issues such as improving airport screening, further expanding the number of armed air marshals in the air and preventing passengers from gaining access to cockpits, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told the Senate Commerce Committee.
He said those task forces are scheduled to report their recommendations by Oct. 1.
Mineta appeared at the first in what promises to be a lengthy series of congressional hearings into airport and airliner security in the wake of the hijacked jets flown by terrorists into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
At the same hearing, the head of the airline pilots union urged Congress to support steps to reinforce the safety of cockpit crews.
Mineta sought to assure the panel that the administration would aggressively pursue solutions.
"Let their be no doubt: We will soon be taking additional steps to increase security," Mineta said.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the FAA was working to limit the chances of unauthorized personnel gaining access to secure areas and was taking steps to protect the air traffic control computer systems from attack.
But the FAA has yet to issue new rules for certifying airport screening companies, over two years after that agency initially said it would issue the regulations, the GAO said.
Sentiment has been growing on Capitol Hill that the federal government, not the airlines should handle security at airports.
"We have a responsibility to make flying safe," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Mineta said no decision had been made on whether to hire federal civil servants to handle security screening.
"To think of screeners as we know them today, it's going to be substantially different," Mineta said. "But if you ask me if it's going to be federal civil servants doing the screening, I can't give you that answer right now."
In response to questioning from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Administrator Jane Garvey said the FAA was looking at requiring airplanes to install heavy bolts to lock cockpit doors. Garvey said the pilots and flight attendants had made such a recommendation.
Following last week's attacks, the FAA ended curbside check-in, said that only passengers could go through security checkpoints, and increased the number of armed security staffed at airports.
Mineta also said the administration will propose a multibillion-dollar aid plan for the industry, including $3 billion to help cover the costs of security improvements, $5 billion in direct payments to airlines, some relief from airlines' liability for damage caused by last week's attack, and additional credits and loan guarantees.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said at Thursday's hearing that any financial package for the airlines should also include money for railroads, which became a popular alternative for travelers following the terrorist attacks.
Kerry and 15 other senators sent a letter to Mineta this week saying they have asked Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad, to prepare a funding request that would cover additional security, safety and passenger capacity.
Amtrak is taking some steps on its own, such as requiring passengers to produce photo identification when asked by railroad personnel.
Mineta said some of that $3 billion could be spent by the airlines to retrofit their planes to improve security, should the Transportation Department require it. Possible improvements include installing deadbolts to secure cockpit doors and changing the electronics to prevent hijackers from shutting off transponders or radios.
Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said that he believes airlines should install deadbolt locks and an additional mesh-net door.
Woerth also said there should be at least two stun guns in the cockpits of airplanes.
"The world has changed and we must change with it," said Woerth. "Use of the guns would be done in only the most extreme circumstances, to protect the lives and safety of the passengers and crew."
Charles Barclay, president of American Association of Airport Executives, called for improving the training and testing of low-wage security screeners who check passengers and baggage at airports.
Regardless of whether or not the federal government takes over airport security screening, as some have suggested, these workers must be better trained and better paid, he said.