30-Minute Airport Rule to Be Lifted

Customs and Border Protection agent Julian Barajas questions a motorist at the U.S.-Mexico crossing in San Ysidro, Calif. Chertoff has signaled a new emphasis on border security.
Customs and Border Protection agent Julian Barajas questions a motorist at the U.S.-Mexico crossing in San Ysidro, Calif. Chertoff has signaled a new emphasis on border security. (By Sandy Huffaker -- Getty Images)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 14, 2005

U.S. authorities will suspend a rule that has kept airline passengers in their seats for 30 minutes while approaching or taking off from Reagan National Airport, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday as he unveiled a broad reorganization of his fledgling department.

The unpopular 2001 restriction has been rendered obsolete by security improvements, including hardened cockpit doors and armed federal air marshals aboard Washington flights, Chertoff said. Calling the change an example of the department's new flexibility, officials said they will lift the rule next week after issuing directives to airlines.

A crowd of 500 Washington-based staff members spontaneously cheered Chertoff's announcement, the only interruption during his 40-minute address at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, where the secretary laid out a wide-ranging restructuring of the 180,000-worker agency.

Highlights of the plan include new offices for policy planning, intelligence, bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, and a renewed focus on securing U.S. borders and raising national disaster preparedness. Chertoff said the department will also play a greater role this year in pushing President Bush's proposed guest-worker initiative, stating that border security cannot be achieved without immigration reform.

The shake-up comes as Chertoff, who took over in March from the first secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, seeks to reenergize an agency created in 2003 in the federal government's largest reorganization in 50 years. Chertoff said the latest plan, five months in the making, is a bid to remove bureaucratic barriers, settle turf wars, set priorities and speed up sluggish efforts to secure the nation's skies, coasts and borders.

"Our department must drive improvement with a sense of urgency. . . . We as a department must be nimble and decisive," Chertoff said. "We will be straightforward. If something goes wrong, we will not only acknowledge it, we will correct it."

For example, Chertoff said, officials of the departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice have ended a stalemate over the strengthening of a border-entry security measure, agreeing to require first-time visitors to the United States to submit all 10 fingerprints, instead of two. Cheaper, faster technology, to be available in months, will use lasers to "read" and digitally store prints, Chertoff aides said.

Government auditors had faulted the department's US-VISIT program for using out-of-date technology that relies on two fingerprints and could not be integrated with FBI and other law enforcement databases that commonly use 10 prints.

Chertoff aides promised new measures in the coming weeks to secure freight rail in the Washington area, improve the no-fly-zone over capital airspace and "fine-tune" the department's often-ridiculed color-coded terrorism threat advisory system. But first they will play host to a meeting of homeland security advisers from all states and the District.

The 30-minute rule was established as a condition for reopening National Airport after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Any violation required air crews to divert flights to Dulles International Airport, where law enforcement officers awaited, forcing passengers to find taxis home or airlines to fly them to National in some cases.

More than 100 flights have been diverted, according to the Transportation Security Administration, with only a handful caused by disruptive passengers. Still, many area travelers reported that the rule seemed to be haphazardly applied.

Frequent flier Dillon Boyer said he saw one passenger last year walk toward an overhead bin after the rule had been invoked, but the plane was not diverted. "Everyone on the plane was freaked out that this person did that. It was like he never heard what they said," he said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company