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.
News of the rule's demise was met with hurrahs by passengers, airport officials and airlines. "I certainly made sure I went to the restroom" before takeoff, said frequent flier Mary Jackson, who said she detested the rule.
Several members of Congress -- among the airport's most regular customers -- and the airline industry have pushed for the change. "It was just absurd to sit down when, in 10 minutes of flying, we'd pass over Dulles. Why didn't passengers at Dulles have to stay in their seats for 30 minutes? It made no sense, and it inconvenienced fliers, particularly the elderly and the disabled," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).
Chertoff also signaled a new focus on border security, pledging more staff and new technology to "strengthen border security and interior enforcement, as well as improve our immigration system. We cannot have one approach without the other." He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will soon announce plans to "ease the path" for students, tourists and business people seeking visas, he said.
In his speech and in remarks to Washington Post editors and reporters earlier in the day, Chertoff displayed a hands-on style. Promising to focus on the most catastrophic terrorist attacks, Chertoff praised Londoners for carrying on after last week's transit bombings and rebutted Democratic calls to increase funding for train security.
"We need to build into our concept of dealing with terrorism a resiliency," he said. "The fact of the matter is . . . a nuclear bomb or biological threat has a consequence of an order of magnitude that is well beyond something that occurs on a train. We had Bernard Goetz shoot, you know, people on a train," he said, referring to the 1984 New York subway incident. "That's a bad thing, but we survived that, the city survived, and the subway can survive."
Congressional Democrats said the Bush administration missed an opportunity to launch real changes. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said: "What we need now is risk-based homeland security action, not just risk-based bureaucratic shuffling."
Federal-worker unions reserved judgment until the release of details of the border security plans. "It is our fervent hope that, in plotting his 'new game plan,' the secretary will examine the overall morale of the officers," said Charles Showalter, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' homeland security council.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.