A security firm cited by federal officials for recent lapses at airports began service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday amid criticism by Maryland’s governor and the airport’s management.
The security lapses, which included allowing a man carrying knives at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to get through a checkpoint last Saturday, are feeding the debate in Congress over whether to make all aviation-security personnel federal employees.
Argenbright Security Inc., like other private contractors that provide oversight at airports, is employed by airlines to screen passengers nationwide. Southwest Airlines and United Airlines hired the firm to work at BWI’s B Pier.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening responded yesterday with letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and the Maryland congressional delegation asking for “total federalization of security screening management and workers.”
Although he did not specifically name Argenbright in his letters, Mr. Glendening said, “BWI is on the front lines of this debate, and recent decisions by airlines to deploy a company that has had well-publicized security breaches, despite the specific recommendations of the state, only reinforce our concerns.”
He said private security firms “do not carry the same level of accountability and professionalism as a total system that is the direct responsibility of the federal government.”
Atlanta-based Argenbright also provides security for airlines at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Other airport security firms in the Washington area are Globe Aviation Services and ITS, both of which work at Reagan Airport.
The company, acquired by Britain’s Securicor PLC last December for $175 million, is the nation’s biggest contractor for airport screening, employing 15,000 U.S. security personnel including 6,000 who screen passengers at 42 airports. Among its clients are United Airlines and American Airlines, both of which had airplanes hijacked during the September 11 attack after the terrorists passed through checkpoints manned by Argenbright personnel.
Last month, Argenbright was ordered by a federal judge to do digital-fingerprint background checks on all its employees, one year after the company was fined $1.2 million for employing convicted criminals as screeners at Philadelphia International Airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department last month announced an audit of other Argenbright screeners at 14 airports. Federal officials said Argenbright continued to inadequately check employees’ backgrounds, some of whom worked at Dulles.
The company responded by saying the audits occurred before it implemented its new compliance program for more-thorough checks.
Further concerns were expressed by the Maryland Aviation Administration, which manages BWI. Beverley Swaim-Staley, the administration’s acting executive director, wrote a letter to Southwest Airlines’ corporate managers asking for assurances Argenbright would not repeat mistakes discovered by federal investigators.
“Obviously, Southwest Airlines needs to decide who they want to hire as their security screening company,” Mrs. Swaim-Staley wrote. “However, I ask that if you pursue hiring Argenbright, you certify to the Maryland Aviation Administration that Argenbright has done criminal-background checks on all employees, all employees were checked against the FBI watch list, none of these employees will have disqualifying criminal histories and you will ensure thorough audits are, and will be, performed on Argenbright’s background checks.”
Southwest Airlines officials blamed much of the criticism of Argenbright on heightened security awareness since the September 11 attack on America.
“We use Argenbright at a number of Southwest cities,” said spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. “We have found them very responsive whenever there are issues that need to be addressed. At Baltimore, they have agreed to increase the staffing at the security checkpoints in order to process customers more efficiently. Argenbright offers better salary and benefits than the previous security company.”
Argenbright officials issued a statement yesterday saying, “As we continue to operate in this heightened security environment, Argenbright is taking necessary measures to ensure the safety of the traveling public. In regard to our work force at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, we have completed background and FBI fingerprint checks for each employee currently working in Baltimore.”