WASHINGTON – Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation Tuesday applauded new security measures at Baltimore/Washington International Airport and the airport’s swift return to a business level approaching pre-Sept. 11.
Seven of the state’s eight House members were briefed by FBI, National Guard and airport security officials, toured the control tower and spoke with the newly instituted sky marshals at BWI. Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, called the airport “a model that will be emulated across the nation in terms of security.”
But they also asked airport and law enforcement officials what improvements should be included in an aviation security bill that could come to a vote in the House Friday.
“There has to be a piece of federal oversight no matter what we do,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who escorted his own son to a flight out of BWI earlier this month.
BWI officials said that within 48 hours of the nationwide airport shutdown that was prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they had put security measures in place that allowed them to reopen.
Since then, traffic at the airport has almost climbed back up to 750 flights a day that served BWI before the attacks, said Richard Sher, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Tuesday’s briefing was the “first of many” communications between the delegation and airport authorities on security needs, said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore.
Delegation members said they to take the recommendations of BWI officials back to Washington to “plug in” to the airport security bill that is expected to come before the House this week.
The Senate last week passed legislation making federal employees of airport screeners, those responsible for checking bags and running X-ray machines. But some in the House have balked at that proposal, preferring instead to keep the screeners in the private sector with government oversight.
“There’s almost nothing the government can do better than the private sector, and that includes airport security,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R- Frederick.
But other members of the state’s delegation were more amenable to federalization of security employees.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said he would like a government entity to oversee checkpoint screeners, either on the state or federal level, and he supports nearly “impregnable” cockpits.
Morella said the need for screening of airport employees, such as caterers, janitors and the crews themselves, especially in the form of background checks prior to hiring, is also an objective. But she was unsure whether the government should become involved in the screening process.
Cardin called for examination of three key areas: airport security personnel training, aircraft structural security and advanced screening equipment. He also said that the delegation is looking for ways to shorten lines and make air travel more convenient for passengers once again, without giving up any of the security measures.
But the presence of the National Guard, random checks of passengers and the investigation of suspicious packages has already done much to convince the delegation of the airport’s safety, Cardin said.
Security and the openness of airports are on a continuum, Bartlett said, so that the public has to lose a little of one in order to gain a little more of the other. For now, BWI passengers have been patient about the cumbersome boarding process, the delegation agreed, but eventually the lines and National Guard presence will gave way to a better system.
Neither Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, nor Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes were at the briefing Thursday.