The attacks of September 11 have not only exposed the failures of our intelligence apparatus and the “blowback” problem of US foreign policy. They have also stripped bare how one branch of corporate America, the $273 billion airline industry, has successfully captured the government agency supposed to oversee it and bought off the people’s watchdogs in Congress. This situation argues for far-reaching changes in how campaigns are financed and how government agencies are staffed.
The vulnerability of our airports can be traced, in part, to the role of the airline industry in lobbying year after year against any federal takeover of airport security and its insistence on contracting the work out to low-bidding companies that often pay little more than the minimum wage to the people who check passengers’ luggage and X-ray their handbags. Last year the General Accounting Office found that starting salaries for screeners at all nineteen of the nation’s largest airports was $6 per hour or less, with five boasting starting salaries of just $5.15 per hour. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from May 1998 through April 1999 turnover at those same nineteen airports ranged from 100 percent to more than 400 percent. Argenbright, one of the four big companies that dominate the private airport security business in America, pleaded guilty in 2000 to several charges and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines for falsifying records, doing inadequate background checks and hiring at least fourteen airport workers in Philadelphia who had criminal convictions for burglary, firearm possession, drug dealing and other crimes. In 1978, reports the New York Times, the FAA “found that screeners failed to detect guns and pipe bombs 13 percent of the time in compliance tests, while in 1987 the agency found that screeners missed 20 percent of the time. Since then, the agency has stopped releasing figures.”
Despite these worrisome facts, the airlines and their lobby, the Air Transport Association (ATA), fought against any federal takeover of airport security because they didn’t want to have to pay more for it and because they didn’t want potential passengers scared off by longer lines or fears of a hijacking. And the FAA dragged its heels, in part because its mandate, written by a Congress addicted to millions in transportation-industry campaign contributions, has been not only to insure air safety but also to promote air travel. The airlines alone have given more than $65 million to federal candidates and parties since 1990, and spent roughly the same amount lobbying the federal government between 1997 and 2000.
Much of that boodle helped to weaken the implementation of new security procedures recommended by a 1996 presidential commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore, set up after the TWA 800 crash. For example, according to a report by Public Citizen, the commission’s recommendation that the background of all airport employees be checked for criminal records was opposed by the industry because it would create administrative and financial burdens. Even Gore himself backed down on his commission’s insistence that all bags be matched to passengers on all flights. The day after he wrote the ATA about his change of heart, campaign contributions started to pour in from the airlines to various Democratic Party committees at double their previous pace.
Many people in Washington have enriched themselves by maintaining this sordid status quo. Current or recent lobbyists for the airlines and/or the ATA include Linda Hall Daschle (wife of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle), Haley Barbour (former Republican National Committee chair), Harold Ickes (deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House), Ken Duberstein (chief of staff for Ronald Reagan and a crony of Colin Powell), Nick Calio (now President Bush’s Congressional liaison) and former Senators Dale Bumpers and Bob Packwood. Three recent FAA administrators, including Linda Hall Daschle, have come from the industry.
So far, nothing has changed in the wake of the September 11 attacks. According to Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has “excluded all aviation security proponents, consumer or public representatives, air crash victim groups, former FAA security officials critical of aviation security and the manufacturers of advanced aviation security equipment from his advisory group” on new security measures, relying instead on the industry alone. The airlines finally came out in favor of federalizing airport screening, though by September 12 their lobbyists were already plotting the $15 billion taxpayer bailout. A month later, the thousands of laid-off employees, who lack a similarly well-heeled lobby, are still waiting to find out if they will get emergency unemployment, healthcare and job-training support.