US President George Bush last week signed legislation creating the planned Department of Homeland Security (DHS), bringing 22 federal agencies with a combined budget of $40 billion under a single umbrella. The intention is to improve communications between them and ensure, among other things, the sharing of intelligence information. The DHS is expected to take up to 14 months to become fully operational as a government department.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created a year ago to overhaul aviation security in the USA, will become one of its biggest agencies. Bush has nominated his homeland security advisor Tom Ridge to head the DHS.

The legislation mandating the DHS, passed by a large majority in Congress, contains several provisions affecting aviation. Specifically, it extends the deadline for government-provided war-risk insurance for airlines from 31 December to 31 August 2003 and gives the US Department of Transportation the option to further extend it by four months. The new law also allows the TSA to extend, by up to a year, the 31 December deadline for screening checked-in baggage for explosives. TSA head James Loy says 5-6% of US airports, including several of the largest hubs, will need waivers.

The homeland security legislation also directs the TSA to develop and launch by February a programme for arming pilots. This will "give preference" to pilots with military or law enforcement experience, but any pilot who volunteers, has no criminal record and undergoes appropriate training, will be eligible to carry a gun for cockpit defence. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 pilots could qualify.

Source: Flight International