July 31, 2003
Diane Witiak
Adele M. Stan
(202) 639-6419

Bush Administration Trades Safety For Dollars At The Expense Of The Flying Public

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Responding to conflicting reports of a plan to drop coverage by federal air marshals on cross-continental and international flights, AFGE National President Bobby L. Harnage, Sr., expressed concern for the safety of the flying public during a time of heightened terrorism alerts. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently informed the air marshals of a policy decision "to rework schedules so that air marshals don't have to incur the expense of staying overnight in hotels," according to MSNBC. Even so, yesterday President Bush acknowledged al Qaida's penchant for using flights for terrorism. "We've got some data," he said, "that they would like to use flights-international flights, for example."

When reports of TSA's apparent plan surfaced, the ensuing uproar in Congress led to a quick reversal of the policy, compelling Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (who leads TSA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security) to make a statement assuring the public of the administration's commitment to the deployment of air marshals.

"This embarrassing revelation is only the latest in a string of perplexing incidents and policy decisions taking place within TSA," said AFGE President Harnage. "If the administration is so concerned about public safety, it's hard not to wonder just how the administration's rhetoric on holding employees accountable for poor performance squares with the apparent lack of accountability for the poor performance of high-level TSA managers. Where's the accountability there?"

Troubling events and policies at TSA include (but are not limited to):

  • Apparent creation of policy to prevent marshals from staffing long-distance flights, and no public accountability for the text messages sent to marshals' cell phones alerting them to these schedule changes

  • Layoffs of 6,000 baggage and passenger screeners at airports throughout the country during a time of heightened terrorism alerts

  • Dismissal of screeners for following TSA's standard operating procedure and challenging the sobriety of an airline pilot displaying symptoms of drinking who was about to take the controls of an airliner. (Letters of dismissal cited the screeners' intervention with the pilot.)

  • Cancellation of advanced training for air marshals

  • Misallocating military leave for screeners in activated units of the armed forces reserves

  • Refusal to grant employees who served in the arm forces their veterans preferences, as required by law

AFGE is organizing TSA baggage and passenger screeners in the hope of lifting the administration's prohibition on collective bargaining rights for TSA workers. Yesterday, TSA officials tried to pass off the administration's air marshal bungle as a communication problem. "I'm inclined to believe the marshals who apparently blew the whistle on TSA's plan," Harnage said. "Given TSA's 10-percent reduction of the screener workforce, a trend is emerging: short-term savings over long-term safety. When it comes to air travel security, the president seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth."

Even as screener layoffs continue, President Bush noted in his press conference yesterday that the latest threat of terrorism is "real," and spoke of the need "to be diligent on the inspection process of baggage, as well as making sure those who board aircraft are properly screened."

Because the Bush Administration will not request the full amount of funding necessary to effectively run the Transportation Security Administration, TSA appears to be targeting for budget cuts programs that have direct bearing on the safety of the flying public, as evidenced by these actions. TSA should be properly funded, and high-level managers should be held accountable for their poor performance.

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