President Clinton, surrounded by relatives of airline disaster victims, signed legislation Wednesday intended to prevent more passenger jets from crashing - or, if they do, provide more compassion for survivors.
In tandem with the larger, already signed budget bill, the $19.5 billion aviation measure enacted Wednesday will mean tightened security procedures already affecting travelers at the nation’s airports will be stepped up. More sophisticated equipment will screen baggage for explosives, passengers will be “profiled” by computers to identify possible saboteurs and security forces will be doubled.
The federal government also will be required to assign an official liaison to families of victims following any airline calamity, writing into law a policy Clinton initiated by executive order last month.
“Because of these improvements, Americans will not only feel safer, they will be safer,” Clinton said. “America has the will, and we are finding the ways, to increase security against the terrorist threat on all fronts.”
Signing of the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act offered little surprise in terms of policy - all of these proposals had won consensus in Washington following the July downing of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 under mysterious circumstances.
But the event did offer a testament to the growing political clout of the families of airline crash victims, who have organized and lobbied for greater rights and more vigorous federal action in recent years. It also allowed Clinton to resume his familiar role as comforter-in-chief, demonstrating his empathy for suffering Americans in a visible setting less than four weeks before Election Day.
Clinton recalled meeting a woman who lost her daughter and grandson in the TWA crash, noting she gave him a photograph of the 10-year-old boy because he had admired the president. “I have carried that picture with me every single day until this day and the signing of this bill,” he said.
Among those on hand was Douglas Smith, whose daughter died in a 1994 American Eagle crash in Indiana. “If you, like me, have tears of love and memory, let those tears by joined today by tears of victory and sense of purpose,” said Smith, president of a grass-roots group called the National Air Disaster Alliance.
The aviation act also bans pilots from allowing anyone without a license (including anyone under 17) from flying an airplane while trying to set a record. The move was a response to the death of Jessica Dubroff, a 7-year-old Californian whose plane crashed in April during her quest to become the youngest pilot to fly cross-country.
Clinton chose not to dwell on another, more-disputed aspect of the legislation, one bitterly opposed by organized labor. The law will force Federal Express workers to organize on a national level rather than locally, which critics contend was a “union-busting” requirement.
Spokesmen for the Teamsters and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who tried for days to block passage of the bill, expressed no disappointment with Clinton’s action Wednesday, saying there was too much else in the bill to jettison it.