How Our Aviation Bill Strengthens Security

July 12, 2016

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today spoke on the Senate floor about how the bipartisan aviation legislation under consideration in the Senate this week strengthens security. The agreement extends the Federal Aviation Administration through September 30, 2017, and provides important safety, security, and time-sensitive improvements for the U.S. aviation system.
Mr. President, over the past four months, the Islamic State has carried out two deadly terrorist attacks at airports.

Taken together, these two attacks – one at the Brussels airport and one at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport – resulted in more than 500 injuries and 57 deaths.

Mr. President, since September 11, airport security efforts have emphasized securing aircraft against hijackings.

But the Brussels and Istanbul bombings highlight other airport security vulnerabilities.
As these attacks demonstrate, it’s not just planes that are vulnerable.

Both the Brussels and Istanbul attacks began – and in the case of the Brussels attack, finished – outside of the areas protected by security checkpoints.

The large crowds of people who congregate in non-secured areas of an airport – like security checkpoints, check-in counters, and baggage claim – make appealing targets for terrorists, who like nothing better than maximum loss of life with minimum effort.

This week, the Senate will take up the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which will directly address the vulnerabilities that were exposed by these attacks.

The reforms in this legislation will help ensure that attacks like those that happened in Brussels and Istanbul don’t happen at American airports.

But while this bill has gained new urgency in the wake of the bombings in Istanbul and Brussels, the reforms in this bill are not a hasty response to these attacks.

Instead, they are the products of months of Commerce Committee oversight of our nation’s transportation safety agencies, and extended Commerce Committee analysis of airport security vulnerabilities.

I’m proud that the bill we’re considering today is the most significant airport security reform bill Congress has considered in a decade.

Mr. President, as I’ve already mentioned, one problem that the Brussels and Istanbul attacks highlighted in great detail is the tempting terrorist target offered by large crowds of people in unsecured areas of airports.

The FAA bill addresses that problem in a number of ways.

For starters, this bill includes provisions to get more Americans enrolled in the TSA’s PreCheck program.

Expanding enrollment in PreCheck will reduce wait times at security, which will help reduce the size of crowds waiting in unsecured areas.

The bill also directs the TSA to more effectively deploy its personnel during high-volume travel times to speed up wait times at checkpoints.

It also requires the TSA to develop and test new security systems that will expedite the movement of passengers through security.

Another important measure we can take to prevent attacks like those in Brussels and Istanbul is increasing the security presence in unsecured areas of airports.

The FAA bill adds more prevention and response security teams, which often include K-9 units, and expands training for local airport security personnel, so that airports are better prepared to deter and respond to bombers or active-shooter threats.

Mr. President, increasing security at our nation’s airports and expediting security checks will go a long way toward preventing terrorist attacks.

But threats at U.S. airports are not the only threats facing U.S. airline passengers.

Americans travel internationally on a regular basis, and on their return flights they depend on the quality of airport security in other countries.

Part of protecting the traveling public is making sure that Americans traveling to other countries are safe as they return to the U.S.

To increase security for Americans traveling abroad, the FAA bill we’ll pass this week authorizes the TSA to donate unneeded screening equipment to foreign airports with direct flights to the United States.

It will also strengthen cooperation between U.S. security officials and security officials in other countries and authorize the TSA to support training for foreign airport security personnel.

It also requires the TSA to conduct assessments of security at foreign airports and of foreign cargo security programs.

Mr. President, another aspect of airport security that has received less attention, but that is equally important, is the need to make sure that individuals who work behind the scenes at airports don’t pose a threat.

In October 2015, terrorists killed 224 people when they brought down Russian Metrojet flight 9268 shortly after it departed Sharm el-Sheikh airport in Egypt.

Many experts believe that the terrorists responsible had help from an airport worker.

Ensuring that airport workers are trustworthy is essential to keeping passengers safe.

However, at times the security badges that permit individuals to work behind the scenes at airports have been issued to individuals who have no business holding them.

Right now in the U.S., individuals with convictions for crimes including embezzlement, sabotage, racketeering, immigration violations, and assault with a deadly weapon can all obtain security badges granting them access to restricted sections of an airport.

And while most criminals are not terrorists, there are too many criminals who, for the right price, would happily expand their criminal activity, even if it involved assisting terrorists.

In March of this year, an airline gate agent was arrested at a Florida airport with $282,400 in cash that he allegedly intended to hand off to an associate.

News reports indicated that he was aware the money was connected to illegal activity, but knew little else.

In other words, Mr. President, he could easily have been transporting money for terrorists without being any the wiser.

The FAA bill we will pass this week tightens vetting of anyone with access to secure areas of an airport and expands the list of criminal convictions that could disqualify someone from holding a security badge.

And to make sure individuals who have been convicted of disqualifying crimes do not slip through the cracks and end up with access to secure areas, this bill expands the period covered by background checks.

This bill also provides for an increase in random searches of behind-the-scenes airport workers, who are not always subject to security screening the way passengers are.

Mr. President, I’m very proud of everything this FAA bill achieves in terms of security.

This is the most comprehensive airport security package in a decade, and it will help us make real progress toward keeping airline passengers safer.

And that’s not all.

In addition to its robust security package, this bill puts in place a number of other important measures, among them new consumer protections.

For example, this legislation will require airlines to refund baggage fees for lost or unreasonably delayed baggage, so passengers won’t have to spend a ton of time tracking down a refund when the airline doesn’t deliver.

It will also make sure that airlines have policies that will help families traveling with children sit together on flights.

It also takes steps to improve air travel for individuals with disabilities.

And it ensures that Americans in rural areas will continue to have access to reliable air service.
The bill also takes measures to support the general aviation community.

It streamlines the requirements for the Third Class Medical Certificate for non-commercial pilots, so that private pilots don’t face unnecessary bureaucracy when obtaining their medical qualification.

And to reduce the risk of accidents for low-altitude flyers, like agricultural applicators, the bill requires highly visible markings on small towers that could pose a hazard to pilots.

On the aviation safety front, this bill updates current law to reflect the rapid advances in technology we’ve seen over the last few years – most notably, drones.

This bill includes provisions to deploy technology that will work to keep drones out of the path of airliners, which is particularly important given reports of near-miss collisions by airline pilots.

It will also deter drone operators from interfering with emergency response efforts like wildfire suppression.

And in addition to fostering drone safety, this bill authorizes expanded research opportunities and operations that will further the integration of drones into our nation’s airspace.

Mr. President, since we took control of the Senate in January of 2015, Republicans have focused on passing legislation to address the challenges facing the American people and our country.

I’m proud that with this bill, we’ve found a way to make our increasingly dangerous world a little safer for Americans.

I’m grateful to all my colleagues who contributed to this bill, particularly my Democrat counterpart on the Commerce Committee, Senator Nelson.

Senator Ayotte also led numerous subcommittee hearings in the Aviation Subcommittee to get the bill on a path to success, and both of us appreciate the contributions of Senator Cantwell, our Aviation Subcommittee ranking member.

This bill is an example of what can happen when Democrats and Republicans work together to get things done for the American people.

I look forward to sending our legislation to the president this week.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.