May 13, 2008
The head of the Transportation Security Administration says a proposed passenger surcharge will raise $400 million for modernizing airport security, even as critics faulted the modernization efforts.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Tuesday the four-year, 50-cents-per-flight fee would pay for explosives detectors that would eventually screen all baggage checked on commercial airliners.
“This would accelerate our deployment to four years,” Hawley said, referring to the timetable for installing the machines. “It’s better than relying on increased appropriations, which could take … 10 years.”
But the surcharge drew opposition from lawmakers, particularly Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who complained that many Alaska residents take frequent, multileg flights to get around their state. The fee is capped at $1 per day — exempting passengers who take more than two flights daily — but Stevens said it could have an economic impact on his state.
“I don’t remember many surcharges ending when they’re supposed to end,” Stevens said.
And Cathleen Berrick, the director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, said there are still questions about TSA’s management of modernization programs. Because of poor planning, the agency didn’t notice maintenance problems with $20 million worth of new screening equipment. The equipment is currently sitting unused in a warehouse.
“TSA has made limited progress in fielding emerging technologies due to performance, maintenance and planning issues,” Berrick said.
Senators also quizzed Hawley on two controversial topics: the federal air marshal program, and security at foreign aircraft repair stations.
Air marshals made headlines earlier this year, after a CNN report alleged that just 1 percent of scheduled flights have a marshal on board. TSA has denied those claims but refuses to publicly release details on the program, citing security concerns.
“TSA has publicly denied the numbers, but that doesn’t deal with the problem of adequately creating a deterrent,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. “Congress and the public need assurance that this program is really working.”
TSA’s proposed budget for 2009 includes $786 million for the air marshals program, up from $720 million a year ago.
Foreign repair stations have been an issue since last month: Hearings on the Federal Aviation Administration revealed that as much as two-thirds of maintenance work for U.S. carriers is done overseas.
The Senate has asked TSA to draft rules for overseeing security at foreign facilities by the end of August. The agency says it hopes to meet the deadline, but Hawley denied there were serious security concerns.
“That threat does not rise to the top of the chart of things that we have a responsibility to cover,” Hawley said.
While FAA oversees maintenance at the facilities, TSA is responsible for oversight of security issues, such as hiring practices and building access. TSA has so far inspected security at 16 of more than 700 foreign repair stations. But the agency does not have the authority to conduct surprise inspections; the visits are organized in advance.
“Someone inviting you to do an audit is a pretty good sign that you don’t need to do one,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.