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Federal Airport Workers to Debut at BWI

Baltimore-Washington International Airport will become the first in the country to have an all-federal security force by about mid-June, marking the national debut of the government's air travel security system, officials said yesterday.

The first 225 government-trained baggage screeners are to arrive at BWI Tuesday morning, checking passengers at two concourses. The baggage screeners are the advance guard of a new federal workforce that officials acknowledged yesterday will grow to as many as 65,000 people nationwide -- twice as many workers as some in Congress expected when they authorized the federal takeover of air security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The new Transportation Security Administration has until Nov. 19 to get federal baggage screeners into all 429 airports in the nation.

An earlier estimate that the new agency would need more than 70,000 law enforcement officers, supervisors, checkpoint guards and workers to operate bomb-detection equipment provoked outrage last week in Congress, with key lawmakers vowing not to fund so many new hires. The new figure is only "marginally" better, said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

"It's too many," Rogers said. "There would have to be really good justification for that, which I have not seen yet."

House Republicans resisted the idea of creating a new federal bureaucracy last fall, but they agreed under the general impression that it would be about the size of the old system of private security screeners -- about 30,000 people. But the law added so many other duties, such as operating bomb-detection equipment, that transportation officials say the scope of the job is now far beyond just staffing checkpoints.

Rogers pointed out that even at 65,000 people, the security agency would be larger than the FBI, Customs and the Drug Enforcement Administration combined. It would also be bigger than the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the Coast Guard.

With Congress also chafing at the time it's taking the new air security system to take shape, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta yesterday announced a series of moves aimed at demonstrating that action is underway.

In addition to sending screeners to BWI, he said a team led by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. has won a $105 million contract to train 32,000 screeners who would scrutinize passengers at checkpoints and gates nationwide. The training is to begin immediately.

Mineta also disclosed for the first time how much equipment the department expects to buy to meet the congressional deadline of Dec. 31 for having all luggage screened for explosives. It would take up to 1,100 bomb-detection scanners, each of which costs nearly $1 million and is the size of a minivan, and up to 4,700 smaller trace-detection units that can detect residue of explosives, he said.

Those numbers would help address complaints from Congress that the security agency has failed to explain how it plans to spend its money.

Rogers's subcommittee is grappling with the Bush administration's request for $4.4 billion in funding to supplement the $2.4 billion already budgeted for the security agency this year. The agency asked for $4.8 billion for 2003 but suggested that it might need more as the size and scope of the job becomes more apparent.

Rogers met with Mineta and other transportation officials yesterday morningto ask for explanations. The group also discussed the possibility of waiving the Dec. 31 deadline for subjecting all luggage to bomb-detection equipment, but Rogers said they decided against it. "On reflection, I don't think we can and they agreed," he said. "The law provides [the deadline] and I think the public expects it."

Mineta said he plans to meet the deadline by using a mix of technologies at airports around the country, with some locations installing only the big scanners, others relying on trace alone and many using a combination of the two.

While some in Congress have argued that all airports should use full-size scanners, transportation officials say there is no way to manufacture and install that much machinery by year-end. Trace detectors, which consist of cotton swabs that are rubbed on and inside bags and then inserted into a device that identifies explosive residue -- would be just as effective, Transportation Department spokesman Lenny Alcivar said.

The agency expects to award a multibillion-dollar contract by the middle of next week to a company to oversee the logistics of buying and installing all of the equipment nationwide.

Once that contract is in place, and with the federal screeners beginning work at BWI, the new security system will have entered a much more visible phase. "As you can tell, we have a lot on our plate. But there can be no doubt: We will meet every goal and we will honor every deadline," Mineta said in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The BWI effort would take about six weeks to reach completion, officials said. The batch of screeners who start work next Tuesday are temporary staffers called a "mobile screening force." Trained at a government center in Oklahoma City, those workers will one day be supervisors at security checkpoints around the country.

For their first two weeks at BWI, they will get on-the-job training as ordinary passenger screeners at concourses A and B. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin -- along with partners that include Homeland Security Corp., Galaxy Scientific Corp., Windmill International and Oklahoma University -- will begin training more new hires to become full-time baggage screeners. That training involves 40 hours in the classroom at a Baltimore area site that has yet to be determined, officials said.

The first 300 of those screeners will report to BWI and get their own 60 hours of on-the-job training from the mobile screening force. As the permanent screeners complete training, the mobile force will rotate to BWI's concourses C, D and E to train the next batches of permanent screeners.

If all goes smoothly, the whole process should be complete by about mid-June, officials said. The mobile force will then move on to other airports to begin the process anew. Officials have yet to settle on a timetable for which locations get federalized next.

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