Senate adopts airport security amendments in FAA bill

Senators backed a package of amendments to the long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration that would ramp up airport security following a wave of deadly terrorist attacks across Europe. 

The chamber on Thursday adopted an amendment containing the text of several bills to strengthen airport employee vetting, expand the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program and donate unneeded security equipment to foreign airports that have direct flights to the U.S. The amendment was backed 85-10. 

The provision is sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

{mosads}In a 91-5 vote, the Senate also adopted an amendment from Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would double the number of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams — which are deployed to inspect travelers — to up to 60 nationwide, provide active shooter training for law enforcement and enhance security around airport perimeters.

Lawmakers have been pushing to attach the provisions to the FAA bill after a deadly terrorist attack on a Brussels airport and subway station last month. Current legal authority for FAA programs expires July 15.

“Events around the world and security lapses at U.S. airports necessitate new protections for the traveling public,” Thune said in a statement.

Thune’s amendment would increase random inspections of airport workers at secure area access points, require the TSA to conduct a review of the insider threat posed by airport employees and enhance employee vetting and eligibility requirements. 

It would also expand the use of so-called red teams, which conduct covert operations to test security by attempting to sneak dangerous materials into airports.

The original legislation was first crafted in response to a series of high-profile security lapses at U.S. airports, including a gun-smuggling operation uncovered at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport last year. 

“Recent terror attacks, along with gun-running and drug-smuggling incidents, are all examples of why much more needs to be done to reduce insider threats to our aviation system,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee. “If an airport or airline employee can easily smuggle drugs or guns onto a plane, just imagine what a terrorist might do.”  

Another measure tucked into the Thune amendment would expand the TSA PreCheck program. The expedited screening program has been touted as a way to reduce long lines in airports, which can be targets for attacks. The Brussels airport bombing targeted the crowds near check-in counters. 

Heinrich said the expansion of VIPR teams would help raise security presence in airports and other transportation facilities, since federal agents on the teams often work with bomb-sniffing dogs.

During a Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger welcomed the Senate proposals to beef up airport security. He said if he received additional VIPR teams, he would “put them to use.”

“Anything we can do to tighten the oversight of the insider population to verify their trusted status is worth doing,” Neffenger said.

Tags Airport security Bill Nelson FAA John Thune Martin Heinrich Terrorism TSA

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