WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the nation's aviation system remains "the No. 1 target" for terrorists, and he warns that his agency may have to cut spending on security at airports if Congress rejects a fee increase for some passengers.
"If the airline industry fights a fee all the time and wins and the result is we have to cut spending on airline screening, then lines are going to be longer, and customers are going to be more ticked off," Chertoff said in an interview Friday. "And of course, the worst thing would be if something happened and a plane blew up. That would be a real shot at the heart of the airline industry. So they've got a real interest in making sure we have adequate funding for this."
As part of its budget request this month for the 2007 fiscal year, Chertoff's department proposed doubling the $2.50 security tax paid each way by passengers on non-stop flights. Passengers on multileg flights already pay $5 each way.
Congress rejected a similar request last year, and Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House committee that controls Homeland Security spending, chastised department officials for making the proposal again. Rogers says it would cost air travelers about $1.4 billion.
The Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines, opposes the increase, saying it will inflate travel costs and "cause further economic damage to the already-crippled U.S. airline industry."
Without the fee, the Transportation Security Administration, which runs airport security, will need to close a $1-billion-plus hole in its budget, Chertoff said. He said that could mean cuts to the nation's force of airport screeners. When Congress rejected the fee increase last year, the number of screeners was cut from 45,000 to 43,000.
"I know there's a lot of skepticism as to whether we can get Congress to pass a fee or not," Chertoff said. But he said he believes most people would be willing to pay "an extra couple of bucks for safety."
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, called for "improved efficiency" in security instead of "constantly adding to the anti-terrorism taxes, fees and expenses imposed uniquely on the airlines and their passengers."
Chertoff also warned that air travel will be less convenient if the TSA cannot implement its plan to check domestic airline passengers' names against terrorist watch lists and other databases. The program would allow the government to verify passengers' identities.
Plans for the controversial Secure Flight program repeatedly have been put on hold amid concerns from privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and criticism in government audits that the TSA improperly stored private information about airline passengers.
Another TSA program, Registered Traveler, is set to begin in June. That program would allow passengers to pay a fee of up to $100 and agree to a check of their personal and, possibly, financial records. Special security lanes would be set up for those who pay and are approved to move more quickly through airport screening.
The ACLU and other privacy rights advocates also have expressed concern about that program. Chertoff fired back: "If people rail against Registered Traveler and rail against Secure Flight, we'll continue to screen and we'll have a good level of security. It'll just be inefficient and inconvenient."
In the interview at Homeland Security headquarters, Chertoff also reflected on his first year on the job as the second secretary of the department, which opened for business in 2003.
Although just weeks after being taken to task in Congress for his department's poor response to Hurricane Katrina, Chertoff insisted that he's glad he took the job.
The former federal judge, who gave up a lifetime appointment to the bench last year to take over the department, joked that at Homeland Security, "every year is like a lifetime." But he said he's not complaining.
"It's not a job you would take if you want to just kind of take a victory lap," he said. "The best outcome is nothing happens, and if everything goes well, nothing happened so what's the big deal? And the worst is if something did happen and that's bad. ... On the other hand ... there's a tremendous opportunity to accomplish something here."
Contributing: Thomas Frank
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