May 14, 2005

Airport security gets new scrutiny by Congress

BY Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- As the sister of a Sept. 11 victim handed lawmakers their very own bogus Mexican IDs that she said could be used to board airplanes, a pilot and a flight attendant complained to a congressional panel Friday that strict security
screening for air crews is wasting time and money.

The testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee highlighted what critics say are inconsistent airport security procedures nearly four years after the hijackings.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles "Chic" Burlingame III was the pilot of the jet that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, stunned members of the subcommittee when she handed them a half-dozen counterfeit "metricula consular" cards bearing their names and photographs. The Mexican government
aggressively promotes use of the identification cards in the United States, though critics say they are easy to forge.

"What good is it to discuss screening highly vetted pilots when we are letting people on board with these? You can make hundreds of them," said Burlingame, who had the cards made by a man in Colorado.

Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach, said the forged cards "look exactly like" the ones issued by Mexican consulates.

Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, said airlines determine what type of IDs passengers use to verify their identities.

"The airlines vary a bit on what they deem as acceptable IDs," she said. "It 's an airline issue, not a TSA issue."

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, said he would ask the TSA to give the panel a list of all types of IDs that are accepted.

"There may be others that we're not aware of," he said.

Meanwhile, the heads of unions representing pilots and flight attendants told the subcommittee that flight crews are subjected to the same security checks as passengers even though they undergo rigorous background investigations
throughout their careers.

Duane Woerth, president of the 64,000-member Air Line Pilots Association, estimated that it costs the federal government $112 million a year to screen pilots before they board their planes.

"It is patently ridiculous to run air crews through the screening process we currently do. They know more about me than my mother does," he said.

Candace Kolander, an official with the Association of Flight Attendants, said flight attendants go through the same employment background checks as pilots.

"If screeners are devoting undue amounts of time to examining flight attendants, that is time that could be better spent screening out true security threats," she told the subcommittee.

Both urged the TSA to expedite a new transportation worker identification card that has been in development for years.

Airports "need to replace physical screening with electronic identity verification and controlled access to airport secured areas for pilots, whose background and criminal history have been checked," Woerth said.

Kolander said flight attendants "aren't suggesting that physical screening be abandoned once such a credential is development, but rather that both have a part to play in developing a layered security system that can protect against catastrophic attack."

Von Walter said the cards are in the final phase of development and testing.

Cox said the issues raised by Burlingame, Kolander and Woerth would be the subject of further hearings.

"It isn't a question of having too much security. It's a question of having too much wasted effort," he said.